Autonomy of L.A. chief under fire after beating furor

March 17, 1991|By Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES -- A dramatic videotape of police officers beating a black motorist has put Daryl F. Gates in a defensive position that Los Angeles police chiefs have been uniquely insulated against for more than a half-century.

The Los Angeles police chief has defied critics and rejected nationwide calls for his resignation after the March 3 beating of Rodney Glen King, videotaped from an apartment balcony in suburban Lake View Terrace.

"There's no way I'm going to leave a cloud of controversy, or under a cloud," Chief Gates said last week. "I'm just not going to do it."

Ever since the adoption of a 1937 city charter amendment that made it a civil service post, the Los Angeles Police Department VTC chief has had a guaranteed job until he dies, resigns or is found guilty of serious misconduct. The autonomy and protection from political pressure granted to the chief is a legacy of once-widespread Police Department corruption.

While the chief's civil service status now is under fire from critics who see it as a license for abuse, earlier reformers hailed it as the salvation of the department, according to City Council President John Ferraro. "Before you start to tear a fence down, you have to look at the reason for the fence in the first place," Mr. Ferraro said of Mayor Tom Bradley's new proposal to limit the

police chief and all department heads to five-

year terms. "At one time, we had a very corrupt Police Department. The charter was changed specifically to avoid a repeat of those problems," said the former police commissioner. "Right now this is getting a lot of attention, but our Police Department is still a model for the nation."

That reputation dates back to 1950, when William Parker became chief, insisting on tougher recruitment standards, better training, higher pay and stricter discipline.

During his 16-year tenure, Mr. Parker's efforts to improve the department's image were aided by the popularity of the television series "Dragnet," which based each episode on Los Angeles Police Department case files. As the only big-city police chief in the country protected by civil service, Mr. Parker turned the job into one of the city's most powerful posts. "I don't want to be mayor of this city. That position has no power. I have more power than the mayor," Mr. Gates' predecessor, Ed Davis, once said.

Before Mr. Parker, the Los Angeles Police Department had a reputation for being one of the most corrupt and incompetent police departments in the country -- a notoriety that was immortalized by Raymond Chandler in such novels as "The Big (( Sleep."

Mr. Parker's predecessor had resigned amid allegations of bribery and street-corner shakedowns by vice officers. Another chief was removed after the head of his intelligence bureau was convicted of attempted murder.

In 1927, most police departments in the country were regarded with a mixture of contempt and despair as one of the worst manifestations of corrupt local government.

The accusation of police-protected vice played a regular role in city elections, leading to the creation of a series of citizens committees who sparked several recall attempts and county grand jury investigations.

In 1937, Mayor Frank Shaw -- elected on a promise of honest government "free from graft and public exploitation" -- gained passage of a charter amendment making police chief a civil service position.

But having a civil service police chief failed to prevent the las major police corruption scandal before the Parker era.

To fight what he saw as an attempt by police to shake down one of his men, mobster Mickey Cohen in 1949 made available a wiretap recording that suggested Hollywood vice officers and even Chief Clarence Horrall were on the take.

A subsequent investigation by Gov. Earl Warren's Commission on Organized Crime disclosed the existence of a multimillion dollar betting syndicate that made almost $500,000 in payoffs a year -- with police officers doing the collecting.

Chief Horrall, who was never convicted of any wrongdoing, resigned. After one year's service by William Worton, Mr. Parker was named chief. "By far the most important factor in police progress is the fact that the department has remained consistently free from partisan political control," Mr. Parker said. "Almost alone among the great cities of this nation, the Los Angeles police officer has been free to do his job with complete impartiality."

Chief Gates makes the same argument.

"I think it's unfortunate that across this nation [there are] chiefs who somehow become a political liability [and] are fired," Chief Gates said last week. "I think that's wrong. I think the people deserve more than that. I think the wisdom of the charter is such that it will remain."

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