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.
U.S. District Judge Gary Feess said the protesters would “suffer irreparable injury from loss of their First Amendment rights” and ordered a new security plan for the convention. A new plan has been drafted and is being presented to the judge this week, said Lt. Horace Frank, an LAPD spokesman.
Greater Challenges Ahead “It makes things a whole lot more challenging. Much, much more challenging,” Frank said.
But attorneys for those with an agenda that they want to promote before the Democratic delegates said distrust of the police department runs deep.
“If the LAPD could declare all of downtown as a no-free-speech zone, they would,” said Dan Tokaji, an ACLU attorney who handled the suit. “We are very worried about mass sweeps and arrests of innocent protesters, especially at the beginning of the convention.”
But for its part, the LAPD says it is doing the best it can to handle the situation. Frank said the the Lakers game melee was a different situation than police will face at the convention. Security at the Democratic event, he said, could only be likened to preparation for the 1984 summer Olympics.
The main concerns are to protect the safety of 4 million people who live and work in the city, to ensure the convention goes on as planned and to allow for the activists’ First Amendment rights, Frank said.
Frank disputed assertions that morale is low among the 9,200 sworn employees. Even the growing scandal at the Rampart division, situated just north of downtown in an area rich with recent immigrants, does not weigh on the LAPD rank and file.
“If anything, it gives them more impetus to go out and do what they are sworn to do,” said Frank, who is the department’s media point man for the convention.
Where Have You Gone Joe Friday?
Long past are the days of Dragnet and the legendary cop Joe Friday who insisted on “Just the facts, ma’am.” The images of the clean-cut, polite and helpful police officer in the City of Angeles eventually gave way to the real-life pictures of the beating of African-American motorist Rodney King by a group of white police officers.
After the riots, controversial police chief Daryl Gates retired in 1992. Among the final criticisms vaulted his way was that he did not have a plan in place anticipating anger over the verdict clearing the Rodney King police of wrong doing and that he waited too long to quell the mass looting, arson and assaults that were all televised around the world after the verdict.
In the 1990s, the department spent its resources on “community policing” to help heal the wounds of the videotaped beating of Rodney King and the riots that ensued after the officers on the tape were cleared of all charges.
“There was a sense that things were getting better,” Jeffe said.
In August 1998, former LAPD officer Rafael Perez was arrested on suspicion of stealing cocaine from the police Rampart property room. He subsequently implicated other officers, including four who face charges. About 70 officers are under investigation. So far, a total of 85 cases have been overturned as a result of the Rampart probe, according to the Los Angeles County’s District Attorney’s Office, which is investigating all the charges.
“There’s a great deal more distrust of the LAPD around Los Angeles, especially among people of color. That is largely a result of the still unfolding scandal, starting at Rampart,” Tokaji said. “We’ve seen a return to the days of Daryl Gates under Chief Parks.”
Adding to the unrest is the rising crime rate in the city, which had only recently seen headlines touting a 30-year low in almost all types of crime. But new statistics show that as of July 7, homicide is up 32 percent over the first seven months of 1999, rape is up 15 percent, aggravated assault is up 9 percent, and burglary is 11 percent higher. Auto burglary is down more than 4 percent, though.
Part of the rising homicide rate can be chalked up to a revived gang war and fresh drive-by shootings. The police department acknowledges the gang members are a concern for the convention. Frank said that most of the people arrested for the damage after the Lakers game were gang members.
But despite the challenges, the department said it is ready for the Democratic Convention. “We are prepared for anything that can occur,” Frank said.