Police Brutality Spawns Political Crisis in L.A.

The furor over last month's police beating has evolved into a power struggle between the mayor, the City Council, and the police chief

THE dispute over police leadership and conduct here has escalated into a political pique and power struggle rarely seen in Los Angeles history. It is dividing city leaders, spurring clashes among government institutions, and may help determine who the next mayor will be.

Standing in the middle of it all - cool, confident, and crew cut - is the city's police chief, Daryl Gates.

Mr. Gates was put on temporary leave last week by the Police Commission while investigations of his department are undertaken in the wake of the Rodney King beating. But the City Council - in defiance of Mayor Tom Bradley and the commission - voted to reinstate Gates.

The result is an extraordinary clash of legal briefs and political will that will affect the relations and legacies of some of the city's most powerful public figures and raises fundamental questions of accountability and balance of power among branches of government.

Five weeks after the police beating of a black motorist, captured in grainy repugnance on videotape, one thing seems clear: The incident will be a defining moment for more than just the officer on the beat.

"It has become a real crisis in the political history of Los Angeles," says Jack Katz, a police expert at the University of California at Los Angeles. "The long-term consequences of this may turn out to be more important for how government works than for anything the police do on the streets."

Behind the hubbub are two central questions that have noisily persisted since the March 3 beating: Is there a pattern of police brutality in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)? Should Daryl Gates step down?

Those who have called for the chief's ouster have argued along several lines: that he has helped foster a nightstick mentality in the department; that, even if he hasn't, he has not done enough to stop it; that no matter what Gate's legacy he should step down to help "heal" the community.

Mayor Bradley (D) chose the healing approach last Tuesday when he joined those demanding Gates's departure, after weeks of trying to orchestrate his ouster behind the scenes.

While the mayor was no doubt worried about stilling the furor in the community, analysts also saw political reasons for his move: He has been under pressure from the black community actively to seek the chief's removal, and he had watched Michael Woo - the only City Council member to call for Gate's resignation - take his message to black neighborhoods.

Mr. Woo is known to be interested in running for mayor in 1993. Mr. Bradley hasn't ruled out running for a sixth term.

Perhaps emboldened by the mayor's call, and believing it was best for the city, the Police Commission - a civilian panel that oversees the department and which Bradley recently reconstituted - temporarily relieved Gates of his duties during investigations of the LAPD. But the following day, the City Council voted 10 to 3 to reinstate him, charging that Gates had been "besmirched" unfairly and that the commission had acted "illegally."

Unless the mayor or Police Commission - if they even can - now try to block the council's move, Gates could be back at his desk today or tomorrow.

Reinstatement marked a political victory for Gates and a defeat for Bradley, two longtime antagonists. It won't still the tumult, though. Just how deep emotion in the city runs was evident in two recent vignettes.

On Friday, Gates was honored by about 900 people at a luncheon; he basked in Schwarzkopf-like adoration as he threaded his way to the head table.

The next day more than 1,000 people gathered outside police headquarters to demand his dismissal. They were lead by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who called the chief's removal part of a "national challenge to rid the country of racism."

A Los Angeles Times poll over the weekend showed that a majority of residents think Mayor Bradley was driven by politics rather than civic good when he called for Gates to step down. But there was also gloomy news for the chief: 58 percent approved of his temporary leave.

Beyond what the latest maneuverings mean for these two public figures are their implications for the broader questions of government operation and police reform.

Some community activists have been calling for a stronger civilian review board to look into police-brutality complaints. Will the council's pique with the civilian Police Commission derail that effort? Bradley and members of the council are seeking changes in the city charter to give them greater control over department heads, including the chief of police. Will the feud between Bradley and the council affect that?

Besides believing he has done nothing wrong and is the best one to pull the department through this crisis, Chief Gates and his supporters have argued another reason for his staying on the job: They don't want his office open to political pressure from the mayor. Is their case now strengthened?

One political analyst concludes: "We have a constitutional crisis going on."

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