The Hahn Decision

Comment by Mark Lacter

OK, Mayor Hahn, you fooled us. Snubbing Bernie Parks for a second term as police chief was not only unexpected especially coming from someone not known for surprises it might even be called courageous, though in a cleverly calculated way.

As expected, all hell has broken loose among African American activists, who called it a betrayal to the black voters who got Hahn elected just a few months back. Much of the rhetoric has focused on the political rebuff as opposed to a defense of how Parks has done his job. Understandable, given that the usual benchmarks in measuring a police chief's performance crime, corruption, morale don't look all that great.

During a KFWB call-in show two weeks ago, Hahn provided a small hint of where he was leaning. "It's one of those great political no-win situations," he said, "and if you can't win either way, then the best thing to do is always do the right thing" not the kind of public soul-searching you would expect from someone prepared to go with the flow.

Of course, Hahn is nobody's political fool, and while there might be some unpleasant chemistry between the two men that the rest of us don't know about, his strategic thinking is not hard to imagine.

First off, crime is up not wildly, but more than the nation as a whole and enough for people to take notice. That provides Hahn with critical leverage, especially among lower-income groups that bear the brunt of a higher crime rate. If crime were falling, there's no way the mayor would have made this move.

Secondly, Hahn is only a half-year into his first term, and we all know that L.A. attention spans barely cover a Britney Spears Pepsi commercial. If ever there is a time to be bold, it's early in the term. (That assumes the inevitable fallout from the Police Commission selecting a new chief or keeping Parks doesn't drag out.)

Thirdly, the clout of L.A.'s African American vote is just not what it used to be, even for someone like Hahn who normally is so aligned to that bloc. With other important voter bases around the city, this is a good opportunity to create a little distance.

Besides, Hahn has every right to seek out departmental managers he is comfortable with (even if the charter does not give him absolute power to fire the police chief). If we've learned anything from the flaps between L.A. mayors and police chiefs (Bradley-Gates, Riordan-Williams) it's that these two folks need to get along.

So did Hahn do the right thing? Perhaps but only if he has someone in mind who is undeniably better suited for the job. And that's a big if. Say what you will about Parks not being a great chief, that he is too stiff or too focused on nickel-and-dime infractions. Maybe that's true, but what I can't shake off is the sense that what had been a national laughingstock of a police department is getting precisely what it needs: a collective kick in the pants, union or no union.

Is there really a replacement out there who would be demonstrably more effective and popular in a department notorious for its political backbiting and general dysfunction? It's a tall order one that might leave Hahn wondering in a year or two whether the trouble he's stirred up was really worth it.

Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.