Parks, Bernard C. 1943–
Bernard C. Parks 1943–
Law enforcement official
Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks is not one to stay out of trouble. In fact, he makes a point of seeking it out. Then, he investigates the problem as thoroughly as possible, faces it down, finds a solution, and moves on. Typical of his forthright style was his brisk approach to the lax discipline and hazy knowledge of rules he found in mid-1997, when he took over the department. Within a month of his appointment, Parks formally ratified a rule he had introduced while a deputy chief—the practice of making top police officers accountable for the behavior of the team members under their supervision. In addition to ensuring that all commanders would henceforth follow regulations unswervingly, this practice also provided them with a valuable incentive to keep their own performance records spotless.
Another important Parks innovation was community policing-a partnership between the department and the community it served. Shared goals and decision-making made sure all participants were seeking the same goal. Parks also introduced and maintained a much closer relationship with the Police Commission and the Los Angeles City Council than had previously existed, so that both decisionmaking bodies had an opportunity to modify his policies before they were implemented.
The habit of hard work has always stood Bernard Parks in good stead. During his high school days it made him a star on the football field and brought him prominence in athletics. Then it boosted him through an associate degree at the Los Angeles City College. But hard work did not help him to find a professional direction for a couple of years after his graduation.
In the meantime he found a job in a nearby General Motors assembly plant, and coached junior football in his spare time. While he enjoyed the time he spent with the teenagers, Parks did not find himself thrilled by his new occupation. So when he heard on the radio that the Los Angeles Police Department had numerous openings for new recruits, he jumped at the chance to switch to a well-paying profession which might prove more appealing.
In 1965 Parks entered the Los Angeles Police Department and was assigned to directing traffic. Unfortunately
At a Glance…
Born December 7, 1943, in Beaumont, Texas; raised in Los Angeles; married; four children. Education: Pepperdine, BA, 1973; University of Southern California, MA, Public Administration, 1976.
Career: General Motors, early 1960s; joined LAPP, 1965-, made captain, 1977, promoted commander, 1980, deputy chief, 1988, asst chief, 1992, deputy chief, 1994, appointed police chief, 1997.
Memberships: International Association of Police; National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives; Peace Officers Association of Los Angeles County, past president; Oscar Joel Bryant Association, founding member.
Addresses: City of Los Angeles, Police Headquarters, 150 N. Los Angeles St., Room 615, Los Angeles, CA 90012.
this assignment bored him so much that he immediately started looking around the department for a more interesting specialty. Eventually he found his niche in one of the detective divisions, and was pleased to be accepted first for training, and then for duties dealing with juvenile offenders.
Parks worked hard and learned as much as he could, showing a dedication to his job that brought him a nod of approval from Pete Nelson, the deputy chief heading all the detective divisions. Almost 30 years later, Nelson had not forgotten what he had liked about the eager young Parks. In March of 1992 he told the Los Angeles Times: “I liked his style—I liked the fact that he was a straight guy.”
Parks was also a keen student. Working hard and studying in his off-duty hours, he earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Pepperdine University, then followed up in 1976 with a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California. All this diligence brought a handsome reward. The following year Parks was promoted to the rank of captain.
Although the Police Department had been desegregated in 1961, in the late 1970s a very wide streak of racism still ran through the ranks. This was due partly to the low levels of education that had hitherto been expected in new recruits, and to the Watts riots of 1965, which had left a legacy of bitterness in many officers who had experienced these stressful days firsthand. By 1978 a new era seemed to be on the way. Daryl Gates was appointed police chief, and hope ran high that the departmental racism would be stamped out. But instead, Gates chose to adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude showing that 30 years in the Los Angeles Police Department had taught him very little about racial sensitivity. “He talked around the issue but never acknowledged the internal problem that existed,” recalled veteran police officer Michael Middleton, in his 1994 book Cop: A True Story. In a city as widely diverse as Los Angeles, this was catastrophic. Gates’ racism not only corroded any possibility of cooperation between his law enforcement officers and the patchwork of ethnic groups that they were supposed to be serving, but also brought the new police chief into frequent conflict with the popular African American Mayor Bradley, himself a police department veteran with some 20 years of experience.
Despite this unhealthy work environment Parks continued to climb the departmental career ladder. Until the end of the 1970s his duties were not publicly detailed, but he became distinctly more visible after 1980, when he was promoted to the position of commander. Now he headed the Operations-Headquarters Bureau, a grouping that included both the department’s Robbery-Homicide Division and the Forgery Division as well as the Narcotics and Metropolitan Divisions. Also under Parks’ supervision was the elite Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) platoon, acknowledged to be the most highly-trained assault team in the world.
By 1987, rising further, Parks was overseeing the daily activities of the 1,300 officers and civilian staff members running the police department’s Records and Identification Division, its scientific laboratories, its communications and computer systems planning, and also its research functions and jail units. Taken together, all these responsibilities added up to a huge workload. Before long, however, his streamlined efficiency would be stretched even further by ominous rumbles of dissatisfaction from the city’s minority communities.
The complaints came from south-central Los Angeles, a 46 square-mile stretch of black, Hispanic and Asian neighborhoods. Once a thriving district humming along on the enormous labor needs of Chrysler, Firestone Tire and other industrial giants, south-central Los Angeles was now a depressed area from which the big companies had long departed. The early 1980s found half of the men in the 18-35 age group unemployed, guns an alarming fact of life, and both gang activity and drug abuse soaring. Police protection was clearly a desperate necessity in the area. Yet residents complained that the police department responded far more reluctantly to their calls for help than they did to calls coming from more affluent parts of the city.
Mounting disapproval spurred the Police Commission to investigate the possibility that police response did vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. When the Commission found the residents of south-central Los Angeles justified in their complaints, Mayor Bradley swiftly signed two ordinances, both to be funded by money confiscated from drug busts. Ordinance Number One added 150 new positions to the department, boosting the existing number of police officers to 7,500. Ordinance Number Two created a new deputy chief’s post, thereby upping the number of deputy chiefs’ positions from four to five. In February of 1988, Chief Gates picked Parks from a list of at least six candidates for the newly created deputy chief’s position.
Parks was well into the demands of his new position by the evening of March 3, 1991, when an unemployed construction worker named Rodney King was caught after a high-speed chase and severely beaten by four Los Angeles police officers. This disgraceful incident was filmed by a bystander who promptly sent the film to his local television news station. Within a few hours outraged television viewers all over America were watching the footage over and over again, and protested loudly against the inhumane brutality of the police. Questions about racism in the Los Angeles Police Department appeared in national headlines. And in the city’s large minority community, where a “guilty” plea was confidently expected when the officers went on trial, emotions simmered at just under boiling point.
On April 29, 1992, the unthinkable happened—the four police officers responsible for the beating were acquitted. The passion in Los Angeles black and Hispanic communities, barely contained throughout the 29 days of the trial, immediately soared into full-scale rioting. Flames exploded across the sky, destroying everything in their path. Buildings collapsed into heaps of ashes and shards of glass. Stores were looted, many at the behest of gangs who organized looting runs.
Twenty-five police officers rushed to the scene, but were unable to break up the mob. The city then employing only 8,450 officers to serve an entire city of almost 3.5 million, had to augment the department first by 750 officers from the highway patrol, then by 2,000 National Guardsmen sent by President George Bush before an uneasy quiet settled over Los Angeles. In the end more than 7,000 people were eventually arrested, and property damage was estimated at about $ 1 billion. But even worse were the countless human injuries, and the 52 unnecessary deaths, mainly of passing motorists who were pulled from their cars and beaten.
Los Angeles residents were not pleased with the performance of their police department. They leveled their accusing finger at Chief Gates, who had been out of town on a fundraiser when the riots began, and had neglected to set up a chain of command to act in his absence. Gates fought hard to keep his job, but was forced out by June of 1992.
By the time Gates left his office, the Police Commission was well into their search for a new chief. To appease the injured black community, they decided to appoint someone from a minority group, and in fact, were taking a very close look at Parks, considered amply qualified not only by almost 30 years in the department, but also because of his proven leadership skills and his outstanding ability to convey to his subordinates exactly what he expected of them.
Unfortunately, Parks lost the nomination. The factor that defeated him was a departmental rumor accusing him of intervening after the arrest of his daughter’s boyfriend, who had been arrested after a drive-by shooting in which two people were wounded. Parks handled the situation calmly, pointing out that his only involvement had been to ask his daughter to come down to the arresting police station and explain her side of the story. At this the rumor melted away, but the damage had been done. Parks was defeated by one vote, and the job went to Willie Williams, a black police chief from Philadelphia.
The relationship between the two men was gritty from the beginning, for Williams and Parks had very different temperaments. Williams was a man ready to compromise; Parks was decisive, and often abrupt. Williams was easy-going and tended to haziness about police procedure; Parks made it his business to understand the ramifications of every single rule in the manual. Following the instructions of the Christopher Commission which had been appointed to probe events surrounding the King beating, Williams did his best to mend the explosive relationship between the department and the public by urging fewer arrests, by insisting on equal courtesy for citizens of all ethnic groups, and by condemning any form of police brutality. As a result, he was popular with the public.
But the same could not be said within the department. Williams found it impossible to trust Parks, and Parks found it so hard to respect his chief that he did not hesitate to accuse him of a lack of management skills when the City Council asked his opinion. “If you don’t give subordinates direction … they certainly can’t be criticized if they missed the mark, if they don’t know what the mark is,” he commented in the Los Angeles Times.
In turn, Williams blamed Parks for the “lack of progress” in the matters of arrests, racism and brutality. In October of 1994, flexing his authoritative muscle, he even demoted Parks from Assistant Chief back to Deputy Chief, and also intended to force a $6,500 annual pay cut on him. But here Williams was doomed to defeat. Parks had many supporters on the City Council, and all of them insisted that his pay be kept at his usual $128,388.
Despite this nominal victory, however, Parks himself had a fair number of enemies in the department. In 1993 he spearheaded a remorseless audit into allegations of sexual harassment at the West Los Angeles Division. Satisfied that these accusations were deserved, he dealt with the situation by making senior officers responsible for the behavior of their subordinates-a move not guaranteed to enhance his popularity.
Even more disapproval came his way the same year, after he clashed with a powerful union called the Police Protective League. The conflict began when Parks cancelled a set of promotions in the Narcotics Group, claiming that the testing procedures had been improper. The League accused him of circumventing the rules of promotion laid down by the department and denying white male officers their rightful promotions, merely so that female and minority police officers could be promoted in their stead. Heated debate within the department resulted, but the City Council, once again, sided with Parks, on the grounds that minorities and women deserved better representation than they were presently getting.
All this discord had a decidedly detrimental effect in late 1996, when the impending end of Williams’ contract spurred him to start lobbying to keep his job. He had reduced the city’s crime and had also added 1,400 police officers to the department, but there was little protest when the Police Commission voted not to rehire him.
Among the issues that torpedoed Williams’ chances were the complimentary hotel rooms he had accepted from Las Vegas casinos and then denied using; his official car, which was far more expensive than any allowed to his subordinates, and especially, his attempt to sue the city for $10 million for news leaks exposing his lies. He withdrew his suit, but any support he had previously earned from City Hall was gone. Williams left with a $375,000 severance package in exchange for a promise not to sue the city. This sum included the rest of his 1997 salary, pension benefits, unused sick time and compensation for other leave.
Once again the City of Los Angeles was hunting for a new police chief. But this time there was little doubt that the department would benefit from Parks’ firm leadership, his crisp management style and his habit of presenting his subordinate with clearcut instructions that could not be misunderstood. He also had 32 years of inside experience to his credit, plus an excellent relationship with the all-important City Council, an unblemished attendance record at all civic functions, and documented proof of complete devotion to his job. On August 7, 1997, as expected, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan announced the selection of Parks as the Los Angeles Police Department’s second black police chief. Typically, by then Parks had already submitted a written plan of reforms scheduled for immediate implementation. In the first phase of his reorganization, he centralized his authority by restructuring the hierarchy at police stations, so that captains would be closer to patrol operations and investigative functions. Three vacant assistant chief posts were cut, a departmental ombudsman was appointed to deal with complaints, and the post of department commander created, so that there would be someone responsible for running the LAPD during nights, weekends, or times when Parks himself was away or off-duty.
Though all these changes were almost universally popular, phase two of his reorganization was not. Most highly criticized by the unions was his abolition of the plan whereby officers could work three 12-hour days weekly and take the other four days off. Impervious to the union protests, Parks abolished the three-day system, because it limited departmental flexibility in time of emergency, and also because it reduced the number of patrol officers available to work each shift. All these changes and several others were efficiently instituted in the Los Angeles Police Department before Parks had been in his new position for a year. Clearly, a new era was on the way.
Middleton, Michael, Cop: A True Story, Contemporary Books, 1994. Chapter 3.
Salak, John, The Los Angeles Riots: America’s Cities in Crisis, Millbrook Press, 1993.
Chicago Tribune, December 11, 1996; March 11, 1997, p. 1.
Jet, May 12, 1997, p.6.
New York Review of Books, October 10, 1991, p. 62.
Popular Mechanics, May 1997, p.56.
Los Angeles Times, February 18, 1988, II p.3; March 4, 1992, p. B1; March 23, 1992: A p.l; October 7, 1994, p. B1; March 12, 1997, Ap.l; July 18, 1997, Bl. Augusto, 1997, Al; August 7, 1997, Sec. A, p. 26; September 19, 1997, p. B1; Oct 17, 1997, B9.
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