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‘Blue’ delivers arresting portrait of L.A.’s policing problems

August 24, 2015


"Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing" Joe Domanick; Simon & Schuster (426 pages, $28)

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As seen in "Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing" by investigative journalist Joe Domanick, Los Angeles appears to be a city in almost continuous search for a great man to solve the problems of its police department and the racial rifts caused by its traditional heavy-handed style.

Domanick gives good marks to recent reformers: Bill Bratton, who served as police chief from 2002 to 2009, and Charlie Beck, the current chief. But he won’t suggest that the department has forever dropped its kick-butt approach to street policing. He’s seen too much of the LAPD to be that optimistic.

Noting a 2014 Wall Street Journal study that found the LAPD had more officer-involved homicides than the much-larger New York and Chicago police departments, Domanick reports, "The upshot was that the LAPD under Beck and Bratton appeared to be leading the big-city pack, not leading reform by example when it came to officer-involved shootings."

Domanick knows the LAPD, its brass, its beat cops and the department’s overseers on the police commission and City Hall. He has written extensively about the department (including his book "To Protect and Serve") and is associate director of John Jay College’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the City University of New York. Although he is not an advocate, he does have strong opinions.

He does not suggest he has all the answers to reforming a police department that is large and decentralized and subject to a variety of competing political and community demands and pressures. But starting with the Rodney King riots of 1992, "Blue" weaves a compelling, fact-filled tale of a turbulent city in transition and a police department that often seems impervious to civilian control.

The story of the post-World War II LAPD begins, in Domanick’s view, with William Parker, who was chief from 1950 to 1966.

Under Parker, the LAPD became a "top-down paramilitary organization" that "focused mainly on young black and Latino men who happened to be on the street or behind the wheel of a car at the wrong moment and come into a cop’s view." Even the police dogs seemed out of control; hundreds of cases of biting innocent citizens were reported, leading to lawsuits.

After the 1992 riot — sparked by the not-guilty verdicts of officers charged in the Rodney King beating and the woefully inadequate response by police — — reformers inside and outside the LAPD fought to reverse decades of a counterproductive policing style that favored order at the price of alienating large segments of the community, as Dominick documents.

The book unfolds in chronological order, the narrative bustling with telling anecdotes and clashes between political and law enforcement figures. The depictions of various LAPD chiefs of police do not fall far from the accepted journalistic narrative: Ed Davis was angry and retrograde, Daryl Gates was an unrepentant hard-nose, Willie Williams (hired after the riots) was clueless, and Bernard Parks was just too strict and resistant to advice from outsiders.

Domanick’s assessment of Tom Bradley, mayor from 1973 to 1993, is not overly kind. A lawyer and former police lieutenant, Bradley knew of the department’s excesses and wanted to make changes. But in the end, "Blue" asserts, Bradley avoided confronting then-Police Chief Gates, putting his aspirations to become governor ahead of his duties as mayor. As a result, Bradley and Gates had not spoken for more than a year when the King riot exploded. It was left to King to plead for the violence and looting to stop with his now-famous plea, "Can we all get along?"

Inevitably perhaps, some of the most interesting figures in "Blue" are the bad guys. Among the book’s best moments are the mini-profiles of reformed gang bangers and cops turned criminals.

It’s hard to beat Rafael Perez as a cop gone bad. Perez was the central figure in the Rampart Division scandal in the 1990s, when officers were found to be beating suspects and stealing and selling their drugs, among other things. Domanick quotes a prison-bound Perez, "dressed in shackles and blue jail garb," explaining his fall from grace: "Whoever chases monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster himself."

Then there is drug-dealer-turned-community-activist Andre Christian, longtime member of the Grape Street Crips gang. In noir style, Domanick tells us: "It took getting shot thirteen times for Andre Christian to reevaluate his life." Quotable in the extreme, Christian explains why the so-called Truce Parties between rival gangs did not work: "Between the liquor, the weed, the gambling, the girls, and the jealousy, the situation just basically sprang back to the way it always was."

If the rivalry between street gangs was intense in the 1990s, so too was the divide between police and African Americans.

It was that divide, Domanick concludes, that allowed O.J. Simpson defense attorney Johnnie Cochran to spin Simpson as "the victim of an intricate LAPD conspiracy." When the jury in October 1995 acquitted Simpson of murder, white America was stunned, but among black college students, including at UCLA, "the cheers couldn’t have been louder."

Bratton and his chosen successor, Beck, were major sources for Domanick, allowing him to give an inside, although hardly cheerleading, look at how Bratton, imported from the East, was able to shake up the department and control the inevitable backlash. As reported by Domanick, Bratton’s strategy for reform was simple: develop a constituency among civic power groups (including the ACLU), avoid being captive of the department bureaucracy and its tendency to restrict information, visit all parts of the city frequently and move swiftly at any hint of police misconduct (the MacArthur Park incident of May Day 2007, for example).

Bratton’s strategy may be easily summarized but, as Domanick argues, it was difficult to achieve results in a department so large, so decentralized and so accustomed to doing things differently. Domanick remains to be convinced that the Bratton-Beck reforms will take permanent hold in the LAPD.

Although "Blue" was written over many years, it is being published at a moment when, as Domanick notes, police departments across the nation are dealing with accusations of police misconduct that often begin with images on police body-cameras or iPhones held by civilians. Hardly a day passes without a video-driven controversy about police conduct.

"As I write this," Domanick concludes, "it’s far too early to know if America’s law enforcement establishment will take the lessons of 2014 to heart."

Of course, L.A. has been down this road before. Remember the spark of the 1992 riots that ultimately set Los Angeles ablaze? It was a civilian video of King’s arrest and beating by LAPD officers who had sworn to serve and protect.

 

 


McClatchy-Tribune Information Services