In some ways, things couldn’t be worse for the Los Angeles Police Department as it prepares for next month’s Democratic National Convention.
The city’s crime rate and gang activity is rising. Two years into a corruption probe of the downtown Rampart division, four officers face criminal charges and 85 convictions have so far been thrown out due to tainted police testimony. The federal government is threatening to intercede for the department’s “pattern or practice of excessive force, false arrests, and unreasonable search and seizures.”
So it should be no surprise that morale is reportedly low and attrition is rising at the LAPD.
The convention will be held at the downtown Staples Center, the spot where the Lakers won the national championship June 19 and where revelers outside the hall torched cars, set bonfires and looted businesses. Police Chief Bernard Parks, who was at the game in plainclothes, has been criticized for failing to send in his officers sooner to quell the disruption. Critics say he feared that another televised altercation would make his force look bad.
“Everybody’s looking at the LAPD,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a leading political analyst and professor at the Claremont Graduate University.
The threat of federal intervention in the department “without question” played in the department decision to give the Lakers revelers room to rampage after the victory, Jeffe said. The question now is whether the same will happen at the convention. At issue, she said, is “whether or not everything hanging over the department … will create some hesitation.”
The test for the LAPD is how it will handle the upcoming confrontation.
‘No-Win Situation’ “It’s a no-win situation for the police,” Geoffrey Garfield, the spokesman for the officers union, the Police Protective League, said of the upcoming convention. “They’re damned if they do and they’re damned if they don’t.”
In a letter defending the department’s actions, Parks points out that Los Angeles escaped large-scale riots that have hit some other cities after their teams won sports championships.
“The vandalism occurred in a small, confined area and was perpetrated by a few revelers. As done that night, the department will always handle spontaneous events with disciplined restraint,” Parks wrote. “Our response may not have won the approval of some, but it was appropriate.”
Parks, who made an appearance at City Hall earlier this year with footage from Seattle of World Trade Organization riots in November, has spent months training his force for everything from college-age protesters to terrorists armed with chemical weapons.
The department is expecting 50,000 people to converge at Staples for the convention, including notables like President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, former President Carter, as many as 28 state governors, 5,000 delegates and 20,000 media personnel.
In a plan developed in conjunction with the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the California Highway Patrol and the Sheriff’s Department, the LAPD had hoped to lower the security risk at the convention by confining protesters to an area far back from the Staples Center.
But last week, a judge weighing a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations noted the proposed “secured zone” encompasses an area of more than 8 million square feet, a zone that he said weighs heavily on the First Amendment.