Law and Disorder in LA: Part Two

Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department

by the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department
228 pp.

'Daryl Gates: A Portrait of Frustration'

by Bella Stumbo
Los Angeles Times


When the savage beating of Rodney King by members of the Los Angeles Police Department was shown on nationwide TV last March (the incident having been captured on tape by George Holliday, an amateur camera buff), the LAPD and its chief, Daryl Gates, were subjected, for the first time, to a thorough, critical, and impartial investigation. It was carried out by a commission headed by Los Angeles lawyer Warren Christopher, who as deputy secretary of state during the last days of the Carter administration had negotiated the release of the Iran hostages. The picture of the LAPD that emerged from the Christopher Commission’s investigation was at sharp variance with the image, long cultivated by the department and its chiefs, of a highly professional, corruption-free force in confident control of crime and the city it policed.

The LAPD is a surprisingly small force for a city its size, with only 8,450 officers. Of the six largest departments in the country, it has the fewest cops per resident (2: 1,000) and the second fewest per square mile (15: 1), this in an urban sprawl 450 miles square.1 For all the talk about the difficulty of policing Los Angeles, however, one can argue that it is easier to police a horizontal city like LA than a vertical city with its apartment houses and high-rise population density; the LAPD can use helicopters and its K-9 dog teams in a way departments cannot in New York or Chicago. (It should be noted that statistical analysis shows “a high correlation” between the frequency of K-9 use and areas of significant nonwhite population, another implicit example, critics say, of LAPD racism.)2

Partly because the city is so spread out, the department functions more like a panzer division than a normal police force, a high-tech army on wheels trained to respond to incidents in seven minutes or less.3 It has its own air force of French Aérospatiale choppers equipped with infrared scopes, and it was a pioneer in SWAT team techniques, a Daryl Gates innovation. In 1980 Gates even offered to send an LAPD SWAT team to Iran to free the hostages, a suggestion turned down by the Carter administration, which politely told him to mind his own business; Gates maintained he had only been joking.

The militarization of the LAPD began in 1949 when, in the wake of the Brenda Allen scandal (in which members of the department were found to be providing protection for a well-known Los Angeles brothel keeper), William Parker was named chief. Until Parker, the department was riddled with corruption; shakedowns were endemic. Parker was a puritan with inflexibly conservative political views. His first priority as chief was to rid the department of graft, and rid it he did, cauterizing the LAPD so effectively that whatever its other faults, it is now probably the least corrupt of the country’s larger police forces. What Parker wanted was a mobile, aggressive, and efficient department, “a thin blue line,” as he…

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