When Chief Bernard Parks of the Los Angeles Police Department heard the news in mid-May, he reportedly went into rigid shock. Seated across a table, the Justice Department’s civil rights head, Bill Lann Lee, read to him and a handful of other officials a harshly worded communiqué. Lax management of the 10,000-member LAPD, said Lee, had permitted some officers to engage in a pattern of excessive force, false arrests and unreasonable searches. The federal ultimatum was unmistakable: Either Los Angeles agrees to a negotiated consent decree guaranteeing authentic police reform or Justice will sue to take over and manage the scandal-ridden LAPD.
Lee’s bold intervention was greeted warmly by police reformers, who have seen their most strenuous efforts of the past decade thwarted by internal LAPD resistance and a feckless city administration. As the crisis deepened and calls for an external, independent investigation of the LAPD escalated, Mayor Richard Riordan, his handpicked Police Commission and Chief Parks bunkered together and essentially treated the scandal as a PR problem that would be resolved through internal channels. But Lee, a veteran of the Los Angeles NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, knew of the deep rot inside the LAPD from direct experience. Using a 1994 federal statute empowering Justice to take over out-of-control police departments and supported by four years of monitoring the LAPD, he moved to do what dawdling local officials wouldn’t dare. “Bill Lee’s message to the city was unmistakable,” says local civil rights attorney Connie Rice. “Time to give it up. Time to finally get serious.” Mayor Riordan is still dragging his feet, but the consensus among city leaders is to reach a settlement with the Feds and avoid an embarrassing civil rights lawsuit.
When City Council president John Ferraro named a four-member team to represent the city, he pointedly left Chief Parks off the list. Parks has earned a reputation as a fierce opponent of opening the department up to “outsiders,” including local elected officials. “And that’s the root of this problem–this huge, inert mass that is the sealed-off, resistant internal culture of the LAPD,” says reform-minded retired LAPD Assistant Chief David Dotson. “Until that is broken down there will be little reform.”
If a court-monitored consent decree is eventually clamped on the LAPD, it would be the most significant implementation yet of the 1994 federal law. And taking on one of the country’s biggest and most notorious police departments would be strong evidence that the Feds are finally getting serious about the national plague of police brutality.
An LA-Justice Department settlement could help pry open the department to more scrutiny. But the wrongful prosecutions and convictions associated with the scandal suggest that the LAPD cancer has spread through the entire LA criminal justice system. It too should be subjected to independent review.