Bernard Parks's L.A. Duty: Ease City's Racial Tensions

New new police chief takes charge as police try to boost image and old conflicts flare.

Bernard Parks has his work cut out for him. This week he became both the new police chief of Los Angeles and a symbol of progress.

While Mr. Parks is replacing a black police chief, he remains only the second African-American ever to head the Los Angeles Police Department.

The move is a milestone for both the police force and the city, each divided by the race riots that set the city ablaze five years ago.

Through those riots - and the O.J. Simpson trial - Los Angeles has become a litmus test for American race relations in the 1990s. As the country's most multiethnic city, Los Angeles is a microcosm of America's increasingly diverse future, and Parks's appointment has drawn attention to the progress, or lack thereof, Los Angeles has made in easing racial tension since 1992.

Los Angeles, "and its ability to deal with what's going on, will serve as a model for others to follow, or as a model for failure," says Robin Toma, a consultant for the L.A. County Human Relations Commission (HRC).

Early reports are mixed. While the LAPD's efforts to change how it deals with racial issues have been fairly effective, the real challenge, city leaders are finding, is changing the city.

"The community probably hasn't come as far as the LAPD has," says Joe Hicks of Multicultural Collaborative, which assesses race relations.

Many ethnic groups, much tension

With a Tower-of-Babel-like collection of 146 national groups and 90-plus languages, Los Angeles faces an immense challenge in its quest for racial harmony. And there are disturbing signs that the tangle of racial conflict that led to the '92 riots is only growing more difficult to unravel.

The distance is clear in the latest figures documenting the city's race-related crime. Racially motivated crime rose 20 percent from 1995 to 1996, according to figures from the HRC - a group formed in 1941 to eliminate prejudice. Hate crimes against blacks, whites, and those of Middle Eastern descent rose, with the only decline seen in race-related crimes against Hispanics.

Mr. Toma attributes racial unrest to a number of factors, including the mobility of California's population (which moves every two years on average), problems in the education and justice systems, and poverty. "The absence of overall socioeconomic equity is continually kindling for the fire," he says.

Blacks have experienced the largest jump in race-related crime. Borden Olive, a senior HRC consultant, attributes this development to deteriorating black-Latino relations - especially in housing projects where the two groups vie for limited space and resources.

And underlying these new tensions are age-old rifts. The history of racial tension between Los Angeles minorities and authorities is almost as old as the city itself.

From 18th-century clashes between Mexican colonists and native Americans to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II to the black riots of the 1960s, cultural crosscurrents here have continually clashed. Since then, difficult black-white relations have dogged the city. "The rift is not healed," says the Rev. Cecil Murray, pastor of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church in the city. "But I think it's a tribute to the citizens of Los Angeles that they still remain reasonably optimistic when they have every right to become cynical."

A new look for police

At least part of that optimism, many say, can be attributed to the changes in the LA law enforcement. Current officials, forced to reevaluate after the smoke cleared in 1992, have worked hard to ease tensions.

The Los Angeles Police and the Sheriff's Department conducted in-depth reviews and changed the way they enforce the law, emphasizing community ties and communication.

All 12,000 employees of the Sheriff's Department received cultural-sensitivity training sponsored in part by the Beverly Hills-based Museum of Tolerance, and policy changes are planned to improve communication.

"We're going increase our effectiveness and stature in minority communities," explains Commander Lee Kramer.

And as Parks takes the reins of the LAPD, the 9,400-strong force is going the same route - embracing community policing to build bridges in low-income, minority areas.

This approach has garnered praise for the department - possibly the country's most reviled in the months after the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King - and won fans at all ranks within the force.

"Things have gotten better with the advent of the community policing program," says Sgt. Greg Horton. "We really are trying because you couldn't survive the way things were."

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