Politics & Policy

Back to MacArthur Park

In Los Angeles, more politics and less police work.

You know what they say about best-laid plans. In a previous column, I expressed my hope to remain as far as possible from Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park, the scene of all that unpleasantness on May Day. It’s all well and good to have plans and aspirations but I follow orders, so when I was told to report to the command post for the latest immigration rally and march on May 17, I did so with some trepidation but without hesitation. As it happened, things went much more smoothly this time, but the event and the continuing aftermath of the May Day melee nonetheless have made for some interesting political theater.

The May 17 event began with about 2,000 people gathering at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Wilshire Boulevard, about ten blocks from MacArthur Park. A number of speakers addressed the crowd, most notable among them Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor chose to address the crowd in Spanish, and in tone if not necessarily in substance his speech sounded like one Juan Peron might have delivered to the descamisados from the balcony of the Casa Rosada. They had right to march peacefully, the mayor assured the crowd, inviting them to accept as fact the myth that the LAPD officers who broke up the May 1 rally had done so without provocation.

This time the march to MacArthur Park was uneventful, with both the marchers and the cops clearly reluctant to engage in any behavior that might lead to a repeat of the May 1 troubles. In fact, in its eagerness to back away from potential problems, the LAPD gave the day off to the very cops best trained and equipped to handle such events. It was a platoon from the elite Metropolitan Division, or “Metro,” that was involved in clearing the park on May Day, so rather than deploy that platoon or any other from Metro, the department instead chose to call up hastily assembled “mobile field forces” from all over the city, leaving the areas they ordinarily would have been patrolling understaffed. Worse, only a small fraction of these officers had ever received any meaningful training in crowd-control techniques, so if things had gone sideways as they did on May 1, the results might have been just as disastrous if not more so.

But, to the immense relief of all concerned, things did not go sideways, leaving Mayor Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief William Bratton with nothing to add to their list of things to apologize for. Since the May Day incident, Bratton has all but traded in his blue wool uniform for one of sack cloth and ashes. He joined Villaraigosa in what amounted to an apology tour, pressing the flesh at various gatherings and at MacArthur Park itself, and sitting impassively at a public meeting where speaker after speaker took to the microphone to denounce the mistreatment they claimed to have suffered at the hands of his brutal underlings. (It’s interesting to note that even now, weeks after the fact, the published figures of those injured by police batons and rubber bullets continue to climb, perhaps reflecting the same phenomenon one sees when a city bus is involved in a traffic accident: There might be only 15 passengers on the bus, yet somehow at least twice that many people end up coming around hat-in-hand and wearing neck braces.)

In his zeal to apologize for the actions of a few officers on May Day, Bratton has succeeded in alienating whatever portion of the LAPD’s rank and file it might have been that wasn’t already disaffected by him. Once seen as the man who pulled the department out of the abyss created by ten years of ineffectual leadership, Bratton is now viewed by most street cops as little more than another ambitious politician, one willing sell out his officers if doing so suits Mayor Villaraigosa’s needs. When he first arrived in Los Angeles he seemed almost omnipresent, showing up unexpectedly at police stations and crime scenes and engaging warmly with cops on the street, a welcome departure from the imperious ways of his predecessor, Bernard Parks. No longer. Today, Bratton is seen as lordly and aloof, almost contemptuous of the men and women who put their lives on the line serving under him.

Sadly, this attitude seems to be shared by some in the upper ranks of the department. In an op-ed piece in the May 20 Los Angeles Times, Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald quotes an unnamed “top LAPD commander” who gives his opinion of what occurred at MacArthur Park on May 1. The problems began, he tells Mac Donald, when a “handful of one-dimensional Metro cops put on their Darth Vader masks and helmets and became a system serving a system, not people serving people. They could not transition between being soldier-warriors and being public servants.” Whoever it was that made that condescending statement, you can bet he’s spent most of his career on his keister in some office, not on the streets. I might remind him that serving people is not so easily accomplished while they’re throwing rocks and bottles at you.

Last week, in an effort to mend fences with the rank and file, Bratton released a videotaped address to be played at police roll calls throughout the city (click here to view it in RealPlayer format). Judging by conversations I’ve had with cops at my own station and others, the address hasn’t gone over well. Indeed, with his opening sentences Bratton demonstrates the very aloofness I describe. “Based on meetings and conversations with your [Los Angeles Police Protective] League President Bob Baker,” he begins, “I know many of you are frustrated with what has been written or reported in the media regarding the May Day demonstration at MacArthur Park. He has made it quite clear that many of you are also upset with a remark I made suggesting that officers ‘go out of control faster than any human being in the world.’” Thus Bratton reveals that he needs to be informed by the president of the police labor union in order to gauge the prevailing sentiments of the cops he purports to lead.

Bratton promises that the investigation into the MacArthur Park incident will be conducted fairly, but there is little faith within the ranks that in the final reckoning procedural considerations won’t be subordinated to political ones. There is already evidence of this. In a profile on Mayor Villaraigosa that ran in the May 21 issue of The New Yorker, Bratton spoke of the independence he has enjoyed as chief of the LAPD, contrasting it with the micromanagement he experienced as commissioner of the New York Police Department under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “In the two years of working with [Villaraigosa],” Bratton says, “I’ve never had a phone call about a personnel matter or a disciplinary decision.”

One senses a bit of Clintonesque evasion here. Perhaps Villaraigosa doesn’t make the calls himself, and perhaps Bratton doesn’t answer them himself, but it is well known within the LAPD that the mayor’s office isn’t the least bit reluctant to exert its influence whenever some police incident threatens Villaraigosa’s political ambitions. For example, after demoting the deputy chief in charge of the May Day events, Bratton replaced him, most predictably, with a Latino. The man selected for promotion, Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz, is eminently qualified for the post, but is there anyone in all of Los Angeles who believes Villaraigosa had no hand in this decision?

Bratton’s ambitions are clearly harnessed to Villaraigosa’s, which don’t necessarily reflect the best interests of the city of Los Angeles. As was made clear in the New Yorker profile, the mayor is a man wholly consumed by his ambitions, which are said to include running for governor of California in 2010. Though he won the mayor’s office handily in 2005, it is seldom noted that he did so in an election that saw only a 30 percent turnout. His base is loyal but narrowly focused, and in much of Los Angeles his devotion to the cause of illegal immigrants has cost him support. He may have his eyes on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s job, but it’s far less than certain that he can even be reelected as mayor in 2009.

The New Yorker profile on Villaraigosa was accompanied by a jarring but revealing photograph. Covering an entire page in the magazine, it is a full-face closeup of a well-coiffed Villaraigosa smiling to reveal a mouthful of preternaturally white teeth. But like much about the mayor, the smile less than genuine; it is the forced, insincere smile of a man trying to sell me something I neither want nor need.

Which indeed he is. In championing the cause of amnesty for illegal immigrants, he is trying to sell the dubious proposition that some laws can and even should be disregarded, and that people should be rewarded for having done so. More’s the pity that the city’s police chief should allow himself to be enlisted in such a cause.

Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.

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