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Archive for Monday, April 29, 2002

L.A. police find reform brings new challenges since race riots

April 29, 2002

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— Seeing the flashing lights and the black and white in his rear view mirror, Pernell Clark felt the old fears again.

First at age 11, and later in his early 20s, Los Angeles police officers held shotguns and pistols on him, pushed him against walls and patted him down. His crime, he says, was being black.

Smoke covers Los Angeles in this April 30, 1992, file photo, as
fires like this one near Vermont Street burn out of control. On
April 29, 1992, four white police officers were declared innocent
in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, and Los Angeles
erupted in the deadliest riots of the century.

Smoke covers Los Angeles in this April 30, 1992, file photo, as fires like this one near Vermont Street burn out of control. On April 29, 1992, four white police officers were declared innocent in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, and Los Angeles erupted in the deadliest riots of the century.

So when he was pulled over earlier this year, Clark, now 35, expected the worst. Instead, the officer was polite, told him he was driving with his lights off and shook his hand before Clark drove away.

A lot has changed since rioting erupted after the acquittal of four white officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, 10 years ago today. A decade of voter-approved reforms, two black police chiefs and rigorous federal oversight have improved the LAPD's image.

"People in the community have really noticed a change in attitude," said Clark, a health care consultant and organizer of a black mentoring project.

But change has come reluctantly and brought new problems. Morale is low, more officers are choosing to retire or leave, the department has been tarnished by the worst corruption scandal in 60 years and a reformed process for choosing the chief has become a political minefield.

As the city prepares to search for its fourth police chief in a decade, violent crime is rising, arrest rates are dropping and the department is struggling to fill more than 1,100 vacant jobs.

Police Chief Daryl Gates, the longtime chief ousted after the riots, said the problems are just what he predicted a decade ago.

"What all the do-gooders did ... they politicized the chief's job and in doing so they set the stage for corruptions. They set the stage for what is happening today," Gates said. "It's a dysfunctional police department."

The department turned infamous after the brutality against King was caught on tape and again came under fire for failing to control rioting that erupted on April 29, 1992. Four days of violence left 55 people dead and more than 2,000 injured. The damage from fires and looting was put at $1 billion.

The official Webster Commission report concluded that Gates had no plan for handling fallout from the King verdict and the Police Department "was caught flat-footed."

The department was seen as the equivalent of an occupying army that could not be controlled by the city's elected officials. A commission headed by Warren Christopher, who later became secretary of state, recommended an end to the "lifetime chief."

Gates was the last of LA's all-powerful chiefs.

The face of the LAPD has changed dramatically since 1992, when the department was almost 60 percent white. Now, nearly half is black or Hispanic.

Outgoing Police Chief Bernard Parks, a black, 37-year veteran, was caught between the old culture and the new, observers say. Parks ran afoul of the police union by instituting a wide-ranging new discipline system. At the same time, he lost support of the mayor and the Police Commission by stubbornly resisting civilian oversight. The Police Commission decided not to reappoint him earlier this month.

Erwin Chemerinsky, who helped write some of LAPD's reform rules, said the shift from LAPD's "bunker mentality" to civilian control, tougher discipline and internal reforms hasn't been easy.

"We're in a transition, and transitions are always messy," said Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California law professor.

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