An interesting mixture of policy and personality was on display Wednesday night at a panel discussion sponsored by the senior lawyers section of the Los Angeles County Bar Association.
The title was “Riots in Los Angeles—Lessons Learned and Progress Made.” But the subject really was the Los Angeles Police Department and the progress it has made from its crude, racist days of the 1965 Watts riot to its intelligent handling of the Occupy L.A. movement in 2011.
On the panel were people who shaped the change and could explain it through their own unique experiences. Instead of dry policy stuff, the audience got very human stories.
Panelists Police Chief Charlie Beck, civil rights attorney Connie Rice and Judge Raymond Fisher of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal each have had major roles in the department's transformation. I was also on the panel, providing the perspective of a journalist who observed the police from Watts to Occupy L.A. and was Los Angeles Times city editor when the paper exposed the L.A.P.D.’s Rampart scandal. The moderator was attorney Anthony De Los Reyes, a former member of the Los Angeles Police Commission. And in the audience, adding her own views, was Andrea Ordin, an attorney who is president of the police commission.
Rice, who fought the department over misconduct many times but now works with Beck on reform, recalled the bad old days. She has the gift of narrative, shown in her excellent book “Power Concedes Nothing.” She remembered how, as a young African American woman, she was pulled over and ordered out of her car by L.A. cops. Then, anecdote by anecdote, she took the audience through the department’s failures in the 1992 riot, and then into the reform era of Chief Bill Bratton and his successor Chief Beck. During Occupy L.A., an L.A.P.D. commander phoned her to tell how the cops were serving turkey to the occupiers on Thanksgiving. She also told how she worked closely with the department during the tense days of the manhunt for Christopher Dorner, an African American former Los Angeles cop whose murderous vendetta threatened to stir more racial animosity.
Chief Beck told of an incident at the outset of the 1992 riot that helped shape his attitude toward policing. He had returned home at after the police officers were acquitted of the Rodney King beating. His wife, a law enforcement officer, was home pregnant. She wondered why her husband, a sergeant, was home as the riot was beginning. So poor were communications that Beck had not been alerted. Beck, then a sergeant, looked at television and immediately headed back downtown. Eventually, he ended up at a police field headquarters in South L.A. and found himself in the middle of complete confusion in a field filled with too many emergency vehicles and unorganized cops. It was a graphic description of L.A.P.D. chaos at this low point in its history and Beck said he vowed that if he were ever in charge of anything in the department, he’d make sure this never happened again.
Judge Fisher was deputy general counsel to the Christopher Commission, the body created after the riot with the task of making sure the chaos experienced by Beck would not be repeated. Under the strict leadership of the late Warren Christopher, a distinguished attorney who later became secretary of state, the commission investigated what happened and made a series of recommendations that resulted in major LAPD changes—for the better. He told how Christopher assembled a talented group of attorneys and would not permit them to stray from his goal of completing their task as soon as possible. Fisher’s picture of the soft-spoken but firm minded Christopher herding his talented crew toward their goal explained why the report was so powerful, clear and convincing.
I talked about news coverage. I explained that the Times dispatched reporters all over Los Angeles in 1992, covering the pre-riot tension, the riot and the aftermath. As our reporters dug deep into the Rampart scandal of the late 1990s, we were able to put more journalists on the story, doing investigative work that angered the then police chief Bernard Parks. But with the staff and circulation reduced by half, I said it would be impossible for the paper to explore the complexities of L.A. ethnic tensions and poverty and police relations with the community as deeply as we did. And we were far from perfect.
Finally, the panelists remembered former Mayor James Hahn, now a judge. He fired Parks, possibly costing himself re-election as mayor, and supported the federal consent decree which put the Christopher reforms, and other LAPD improvements in effect. The judge wasn’t in the room but he deserves a lot of credit for what happened.