Race clouds a police chief's future

In Los Angeles, a reappointment tussle echoes issues that go back to Rodney King.

The 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King at the hands of uniformed officers helped set police reform in motion nationwide - except here, where the event occurred.

That, at least, is a common criticism of the Los Angeles Police Department. Despite a decade of widening scandals, experts say the LAPD has not rooted out a long-entrenched culture of corrupt officers, dubious accountability, and top-down insolence.

The latest manifestation of the department's 10-year struggle to clean up its act is the rising controversy over whether Police Chief Bernard Parks, an African-American, will be appointed to a second five-year term.

On one level, the story is playing out as a political skirmish with cries of racism between the black establishment, the white mayor, and police rank and file. But more broadly, the question at issue is whether Mr. Parks has been an agent of misguided change and declining morale, or a visionary leader foiled by a hidebound police culture.

"The list of cities which have changed is long - San Diego, Boston, San Jose, Pittsburgh," says Sam Walker, a University of Nebraska expert on police accountability. "But the LA police leadership simply continues to operate with an in-your-face attitude ... that they know all the problems and no one else can possible understand. Therein lies their problem."

Once appointed for life, the police chief here is now limited to two five-year terms. Parks' first term expires in May, and he has indicated keen interest in continuing for another five.

But his reappointment has run into heavy opposition from several fronts, including the 9,000-member police union and the city's new mayor, James Hahn.

SOME of the issues seem mundane and bureaucratic. Parks has opposed the union's plan for a flexible workweek, which allows officers to work 12-hour shifts, three days a week or 10-hour days, 4 days a week. Other police departments across the state and country are moving to such systems as LAPD continues to lose needed officers - often to other departments with flex-time schemes.

Parks also instituted a disciplinary system that the union and others say is too harsh, capricious, and arbitrary - another reason many officers say they want to leave. (A recent union poll showed a 93 percent vote of "no confidence" in Parks.)

But broader decisions hinge on whether the LAPD will put an era of scandal behind it.

In the wake of the Rodney King affair, a commission of national experts called for reforms here, ranging from accountability to community policing and independent oversight. Voters ended life tenure for the police chief in favor of two five-year terms. A new chief was brought from outside the LAPD.

But a hostile command staff undermined the new chief, Willie Williams, an African-American who was let go after a single term. The first independent police inspector general resigned, saying he had too little power. In 1995-96, several missteps during the O.J. Simpson trial brought outside criticism, and in the middle of 1999 an even bigger scandal broke, implicating hundreds of officers for routinely planting evidence, lying on the witness stand, and framing suspects. New scrutiny brought a federal consent decree to run the Police Department under the auspices of Justice Department officials.

The reappointment of Parks - a decision in the hands of a five-member Police Commission appointed by the mayor - is heating up as a race issue.

"Blacks don't buy the line that the mayor and union are against Parks because of bad management," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political commentator here. "The bottom line for them is that Parks is an African-American, and white officers just can't stomach taking orders from a black police chief."

The police union has never had an African-American on its board in 80 years.

Some observers say it is Parks's effort to oust a long-entrenched culture of corruption that rankles with officers. Also, many don't like the disciplinary system he has ordered, under pressure from federal officials appointed to oversee the LAPD.

"Though the press and public don't acknowledge it, [Parks] has done a fairly good job of cleaning up the department," says Dennis Ray Martin, spokesman for the National Association of Chiefs of Police.

Mary Powers, director of the Chicago-based National Coalition on Police Accountability, laments the degree to which the debate over Parks is centering on race. "We would hope that a continued focus on reform and leadership be the key issues in picking a new chief, not race," she says. "That looks all but impossible to sort out in the current climate."

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