Police department is focus of another furor in L.A.

African-Americans see mayor's failure to support black chief as betrayal

April 11, 2002|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LOS ANGELES - John McDaniel bristled with anger as he recalled the looting and arson that erupted a decade ago after four policemen who beat Rodney King were acquitted.

McDaniel, who owns the Sons of Africa barber shop at 103rd Street and Central Avenue in Watts, had to defend his shop against what he called "senseless" arson and looting after the April 29, 1992, verdict.

Today, Watts and the riot's epicenter in South Central Los Angeles continue to be troubled by poverty, unemployment and street gangs. "We don't need Rodney King, we need Dr. Martin Luther King," McDaniel said.

As ever, the Los Angeles Police Department remains a flash point in city politics, race relations and daily life in crime-ridden neighborhoods. On Tuesday, many in the black community were outraged by the city Police Commission's 4-1 vote to deny a second five-year term to Chief Bernard C. Parks, an action that had the support of first-term Mayor James K. Hahn, who is white.

Parks is an African-American like his predecessor, Willie L. Williams, who was appointed after the 1992 unrest that resulted in 54 deaths, more than 2,000 injuries and almost a billion dollars in property damage.

For many blacks in this town, having an African-American police chief was more than a victory symbol, it was reassurance that brutality complaints would not be ignored, as many felt they were under previous white chiefs. In 1965, police brutality sparked the Watts civil disorder, which caused 34 deaths, 4,000 arrests and $35 million in damage.

After African-Americans delivered 80 percent of their votes to Hahn in last summer's nonpartisan election, they were stunned when he announced in February that he did not support Parks' reappointment. The mayor said he disagreed with the chief's handling of community policing and personnel issues such as recruitment and retention that have left the department short by 1,200 police officers. The murder rate has also been spiking, up 52 percent this year.

"The mayor has abused his relationship with the black community, especially the clergy," said Brenda Shockley, the president of Community BUILD, a nonprofit development corporation, founded by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a Democrat. "When he asked for their support, they trusted him, they assumed he would support their issues and he knew reappointing Parks was very important to them."

Waters and basketball great Magic Johnson were among the black leaders who threw their support behind Hahn's mayoral bid. Now, Waters, who called the mayor's opposition to Parks "outrageous," says she'll work to unseat Hahn. Johnson says he might run for mayor in the next election in 2005.

City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who supported Hahn's opponent, Antonio Villaraigosa, in the mayoral race, said Hahn appears to have suffered irreparable political damage by pressing for Parks' ouster. "His key message carriers in the African-American community have vowed to do everything they can to make sure he is not re-elected."

When Parks, 58, succeeded Williams in 1997, he inherited a troubled department.

In 1998, an investigation into the theft of six pounds of cocaine from the department's evidence room sparked the Rampart Division scandal, the worst in the department's history. The investigation turned up violent, drug-dealing rogue cops. In 2000, the city signed a consent decree with the Justice Department to avert a lawsuit over police reforms. Nine years earlier, a blue ribbon panel had recommended reforms after King's beating, but they had not been implemented. The consent decree requires the city's reform efforts to be evaluated by an independent monitor.

"The chief opposed the consent decree, and I am extremely disappointed now that the department is falling short in its implementation of reform," Hahn said.

Parks' supporters say Hahn's opposition to the chief was politically motivated, and blamed the police union. Parks clashed with the union over a number of issues ranging from work hours to the system for investigating citizens' complaints against officers. Under Parks, the complaints were closely scrutinized, and disciplinary action against officers increased.

Some of Hahn's most vocal supporters for dumping Parks came from Boyle Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in East Los Angeles. Latinos have become increasingly influential in Los Angeles over the past decade as their population has risen by 24 percent and black residents have dropped by 15 percent.

Today, the city is 46.5 percent Latino and 11.2 percent black. The shift is very obvious in South Central Los Angeles, where Latinos are buying homes as black homeowners head to more affluent areas or leave the city.

Monsignor John Moretta, whose parish is in Boyle Heights, said there are 38 known street gangs in the area. During the first three months of the year, there were 17 homicides in Boyle Heights, three times the number during the same period last year.

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