Top Cop Hopefuls Denote Growing Latino Clout

By EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON

Los Angeles is poised to make history of sorts. There are as many as three Latinos who are thinking of tossing their hats into the ring to become the next LAPD chief.

Mayor James Hahn will select from three candidates chosen by the L.A. Police Commission, a process that will take place by September, perhaps sooner.

Having a Latino as the city's top cop is more than a personal or ethnic triumph. It says a lot about the spectacular leap in Latino economic and political clout during the past decade.

There are now more than two million Latino voters in the state. By 2010, if not sooner, they will make-up about 40 percent of the state's voters. Those numbers have already translated into a radical remake of the state's political face. Latinos now hold one-third of the seats in the state legislature, the lieutenant governor post, and many key state commission posts. There are now as many Latino Republicans in the Assembly as blacks.

In Los Angeles, Latinos make up a statistical majority in all three L.A. city council districts currently held by African-Americans. The three councilpersons cling precariously to their political power only because the majority of the Latinos in their districts are either non-citizens or too young to vote.

But that will change.

Their numbers will grow even faster due to the availability of cheap housing and access to lower-end manufacturing and retail industry jobs in South-Central Los Angeles. In addition, more Latino immigrants will become citizens, their children will become eligible to vote, and a relentless voter registration drive by Latino political groups will translate their numerical majority into a voting majority in these districts.

There is a chance that blacks could lose the three seats they currently hold on the council. There is also the likelihood that one of L.A.'s three black U.S. representatives will face a sharp challenge from a Latino candidate in the not too distant future.

Latinos now make up a majority, or a significant minority, of the population in their districts.

The selection of a Latino as LAPD chief would certainly add weight to this growing influence even if a police chief should, in theory, be above politics and not chosen merely as a concession to a shifting ethnic demographic majority.

Police chiefs face a set of problems that go above and beyond politics. Crime soared on the watch of LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, and apparently weighed heavily in the decision not to given him another term. If crime continues to soar in L.A., a Latino chief will face the same criticism, whether or not justified.

Police chiefs are also measured on how adept they are at following the directives and whims of police commissions, mayors, and their unions as well as how well they curry favor with a city's diverse ethnic groups. Police chiefs must be politicians without portfolios to successfully deal with these thorny problems.

If a Latino becomes chief, no matter how big Latino power becomes in Los Angeles, he will also have to deal with those same problems.



Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist and can be heard on KPFK-FM (90.7) Tuesdays, 7-8 p.m.

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