Two decades ago, the Los Angeles Police Department faced a defining moment, as crime ticked upward, a massive corruption scandal smoldered and a federal judge pushed to correct the department's long history of civil rights violations.
A central preoccupation of L.A. politics in 2002 became: Should Chief Bernard C. Parks get a second five-year term? Or should the department be handed to a new leader?
Mayor James K. Hahn and his civilian Police Commission, headed by businessman Rick Caruso, decided to end Parks' nearly four-decade career with the LAPD and to replace him with former New York Police Department leader William J. Bratton.
The decision resonated through the LAPD for years, as Bratton presided over a mostly steady drop in crime and more agreeable relations with the federal overseers of reform. The leadership change triggered demonstrations and calls for Caruso's resignation. And it echoes today, as the billionaire real estate developer depicts his service two decades ago as critical in guiding the LAPD into a new era.
Many experts see that era as the beginning of a better time for the LAPD, its reputation improved among Angelenos and the worst offenses of the "warrior" style of policing tamped down during Bratton's tenure. But some progressives view the legacy of that time, with its more frequent police-citizen interactions, as oppressive for the city's most vulnerable people.
"I am the only candidate that has ever headed up a police department," Caruso said in an interview, "who hired senior leadership at a police department, reformed a police department, got it out of a federal consent decree and brought it back to civilian control … hired 800 officers and dropped crime by 30%."
Records and interviews suggest that, while Caruso had an important hand in changes at the LAPD, his role was more nuanced, some of his accomplishments more modest and the changes dependent on more players than the candidate's narrative suggests.
As Police Commission president, Caruso did not head the LAPD but, rather, led the panel of five civilians who ended Parks' reign and helped make Bratton the new chief, a choice ultimately made by Hahn.
He and four other commissioners set some department policies, but the most critical civil rights correctives were ordered by U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess. Rather than ending the judicial decree, the LAPD remained under Feess' oversight for years after Caruso left the commission.
The LAPD may have hired 800 officers on Caruso's watch, but attrition meant that the force grew less, by roughly 370 officers, well short of the 1,000 increase the Hahn administration had promised. Crime did drop by 30% over four years, as Caruso claims, with experts crediting many factors — including the LAPD's tactics, an improving economy and the gentrification of some crime-plagued neighborhoods.
Hahn appointed Caruso to the Police Commission in 2001. His most memorable moments as president came during the 2002 showdown with Parks, the department's second Black chief, whom Hahn had previously lauded for his insistence on high standards and for a marked drop in crime in his first years in office.
By 2002, despite Parks' persistent claims that his strong hand would improve the department, he took criticism on several fronts: for an increase in violent crime, for meting out overly harsh and indiscriminate punishment; for insisting he could guide reform, rather embracing the monitoring (including on racial profiling) that the city had agreed to conduct as part of the federal court order.
Still, a furor erupted in early 2002, when Hahn announced he did not support a second term for the chief. Black leaders said they felt betrayed. Radio host Tavis Smiley called Hahn's decision "a slap in the face of African American voters, without whom Jimmy Hahn would never have become mayor."
Parks' allies said the mayor's announcement tilted the debate against the chief, despite a City Charter requirement that the Police Commission make the final decision.
Hahn, now a Superior Court judge, declined to be interviewed, saying he was constrained from discussing political matters. But one of his closest aides said he deserved most of the credit for changing chiefs.
Richard Drooyan, a former federal prosecutor who twice served on panels examining the LAPD's failures, said in an interview that Hahn's move to a new chief represented "a profile in courage, because Jimmy Hahn knew if he replaced Parks it could jeopardize his reelection."
Then and now, Caruso said the commission acted independently. Asked in 2002 whether he feared breaking with Hahn on the issue, Caruso told the Los Angeles Times: "What's the worst thing that can happen, that I get fired? Then I get more personal time for my family and my business."
The conflict between Parks and Caruso became personal. The commission president accused the chief of providing misleading information. The chief denied it and countered that Caruso and other commissioners had merely followed the dictates of the mayor who, in turn, was bowing to the demands of the police officers union.
Protesters shut down work at the Grove, the shopping center then on the verge of opening in the Fairfax district. A leader of the Grove protest called Caruso "extremely smug and arrogant." The developer countered that he would not give in to "extortion."
The emotional tempest spiked when Caruso reportedly referred to U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., as a "bitch" when he met privately with a group of police commanders. The congresswoman had been planning a rally in support of Parks. Leaders in the Black community demanded that Caruso be ousted. Hahn refused.
Caruso declined to comment on whether he used the word. He calls the Waters furor nothing more than "a diversionary tactic, part of a strategy to undercut me." If elected, he adds: "I look forward to working with the congresswoman." The commission voted 4 to 1 to deny Parks a second term.
"I took the slings and arrows at that time," Caruso recalled. "To the great credit of Jim Hahn, he never asked me to waver or change my thinking." (Rejected by many Black voters in 2005, Hahn lost his bid for a second term to Antonio Villaraigosa.)
Parks went on to serve 12 years on the City Council. Now retired, the 78-year-old Parks still speaks at length about the unfairness of the outcome. He says Caruso's focus on ending his time as chief shouldn't be viewed as a strength, adding: "If that's your one major accomplishment that you claim, then you've not done much in the last 20 years."
Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who has closely monitored the LAPD for decades, said that Hahn led the way for the important change but that Caruso played a key role.
"It took real leadership by Rick to shepherd that commission through that kind of confrontation with a very powerful chief," said Rice, who has endorsed Rep. Karen Bass for mayor. "On a scale of leadership, I give him an 11 out of 10."
Though Caruso now touts the hiring of Bratton as one of his most important actions, he initially looked to LAPD insiders to fill the job. "It was ironic that he ended up supporting me, because it was my understanding he was not for me initially," Bratton said in a recent interview.
Caruso said his thoughts shifted after more research, including a talk with former President Clinton. "Clearly, I was convinced that [Bratton] was the best law enforcement executive in the country," Caruso said.
Caruso also impressed one of his commission colleagues, Silvia Saucedo, with making a variety of people feel heard in public hearings about the chief's job. Even as some of the sessions grew heated, Caruso would give out his mobile phone number. "I was like, 'Wow, Rick is for real,' " Saucedo said.
Caruso's campaign website calls Bratton "the most transformational figure in the history of policing in the city of Los Angeles." And Bratton has returned the compliment, endorsing Caruso as an effective manager who "talks the talk and walks the walk."
Though many past Police Commissions were viewed as rubber stamps for the police chief, the panel Caruso led in 2001 and 2002 acted more independently in some areas. The group moved to bolster the "senior lead officer" community policing program, to limit high-speed chases, to replace the dilapidated headquarters at Parker Center and to create an independent commission to review the department's response to the Rampart corruption scandal.
Jim McDonnell, a former top deputy to Bratton and later L.A. County sheriff, said Caruso "looked out for the cops, but always in light of what was best for the community."
Experts credit L.A.'s crime dip during that time to a relatively strong economy and gentrification of once-dangerous neighborhoods. Bratton cited more assertive policing — using statistics to move extra detectives and officers into high-crime areas and focusing on the small number of people who committed the majority of offenses.
A 2009 Harvard study, commissioned by Bratton, found that public satisfaction with the LAPD increased, with 83% of residents saying the department was doing a good or excellent job. The study also found that stops of pedestrians and drivers had increased sharply over six years from 587,200 in 2002 to 875,204 in 2008. The Harvard researchers approved of the "quality" of the stops because a higher proportion of those questioned were arrested and prosecuted.
Former state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) argued in an article in the Nation that the LAPD was in danger of mimicking the New York Police Department's controversial "stop and frisk" policies. Hayden wrote that the numbers "point toward racial profiling and a possible ticking time bomb."
Jody Armour, a USC law professor who focuses on racial justice, pointed to studies that showed that increased stops, similar to those in the Bratton era, did not lead to a decrease in serious crimes. But he said damage in poor communities of color was real.
"A reservoir of resentment grows and festers and it shatters the trust and confidence that members of the community have in law enforcement," Armour said. "And, most importantly, it does not make the communities safer."
Caruso said the crime decreases of his era speak to the LAPD's successes. "On the face of it, I think you want to have officers engaged and you want to have officers making arrests for crimes," he said. "But you want to make sure they are doing it in the right way."
As to Caruso's claim of reforming the LAPD, those around the department 20 years ago say the most important driver of change was the court order, imposed after the U.S. Justice Department concluded there was a "pattern or practice" of civil rights abuses by officers.
Drooyan, himself a Police Commission president years after Caruso, said the consent decree "made the department accountable to the federal judge, more than to any other single person." (Drooyan is supporting City Attorney Mike Feuer for mayor.)
Caruso said he got the LAPD out of the consent decree, citing claims by Bratton and others that the order was largely fulfilled not long after he left the commission. But that diverges from Feess' view at the time.
In 2006, the judge angrily rebuked the department for what he found was the slow pace of reform. He extended the degree, finally handing oversight back to the Police Commission in 2009 before lifting the order entirely in 2013, eight years after Caruso left the commission.
Another important duty for Police Commission members is judging whether police used force appropriately. Regular observers of the commission viewed Caruso as a fair arbiter, willing to hold officers accountable when the facts demanded it.
The commissioners sometimes saw their findings overruled, however, by internal LAPD panels known as boards of rights. Caruso argued that allowing civilian commissioners to be overruled by panels that included LAPD supervisors "made no sense." He continues to say the system should be reexamined.
A central component of Caruso's current public safety plan is adding 1,500 officers to a police force that now stands at about 9,500. Caruso's campaign chastised the "cowardly" L.A. City Council for temporarily cutting LAPD funding last year.
While putting himself at the center of many past public safety initiatives, Caruso now distances himself from others — notably his support of sales tax and trash fee increases to pay for more police and a shift of more healthcare costs to city employees, to stretch the city budget further.
The businessman suggests he was merely following Hahn's lead on the proposal (subsequently enacted under Villaraigosa) to raise the trash fee. Around the same time, late 2004, Caruso said he would spend his own money to promote a measure imposing a half-cent sales tax to hire more police.
"This would be the best investment I could make," Caruso said of the sales tax. "Being a Republican, I don't like taxes, but sometimes you have to do it." By a single vote, the City Council rejected putting the tax on the ballot.
Caruso, who registered as a Democrat earlier this year, now says he wouldn't need to raise fees and taxes, or cut other services, to hire more cops. He says he would find the money by cutting waste in city departments, which he estimated at about 10%, or $1.1 billion. He also said his reforms would allow businesses to make more money and, thus, generate more tax receipts.
Veterans of decades-long fights to expand the LAPD cautioned that a huge portion of the city budget is tied up in employee salaries, benefits and pensions.
"If it was so easy to find $1 billion in the city budget, someone would have figured it out by now," said Zev Yaroslavsky, who headed the City Council's budget committee for more than a decade. "One ought to have a Plan B, in case they can't find that 10%."