LOS ANGELES (MCT) — The news conference called last week by the mayor, the police chief and other officials at the new Los Angeles Police Department headquarters was meant to celebrate the capture of a suspect in a decades-long series of murders in South Los Angeles.
But in a far more subtle way, the proceedings also served as a slap-down to the notion of the moment — that government is bloated and unresponsive, unworthy of support and unable to produce success in the quick time frames expected by its citizenry.
Here government, by way of its foot soldiers the detectives and crime lab workers, had worked. Not necessarily quickly and not always impeccably. Still, elected officials had taken risky stances. Employees being mocked by candidates as overpaid and sumptuously pensioned had worked together to break the case open. A police department and a community that regarded each other with animosity a generation ago stood side by side, exchanging praise.
Reminders came from the elected officials who gathered around the microphones in front of the television cameras and from perhaps the most politic figure of them all Thursday, the unelected LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.
“When government succeeds, there is no reason to be shy about it,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a California State University, Fullerton, political scientist who has written extensively about Los Angeles.
For two officials present, the result — the charging of Lonnie David Franklin Jr. on 10 counts of murder and another of attempted murder — rewarded moves that had alienated some of their most vocal supporters.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stubbornly has stuck to his campaign vow of a 10,000-officer LAPD, in the face of severe cutbacks in other areas of city government and among the unions that formed his earliest support. Listeners on Thursday were reminded of that over and over, though not by Villaraigosa.
“I want to thank the mayor for keeping the staffing of the Los Angeles Police Department large enough that we can concentrate the resources on this job,” said Beck.
“The mayor is a man who I have to commend today,” said Sheriff Lee Baca, there because one of the victims died in county territory. “Because he never wavered since the beginning of his office, two terms ago, as to what his commitment would be to law enforcement. ... These cases will go on for years and decades. So, Mayor, thank you very much for standing up for the public safety needs for the great city of Los Angeles.”
State Attorney General Jerry Brown had pushed aside concerns about the invasive nature of DNA testing to approve rarely used “familial” searching that, ultimately, fingered Franklin.
Villaraigosa lauded Brown for clearing the way for such testing, calling it “instrumental in this arrest.” Former LAPD chief and current Councilman Bernard Parks credited Brown’s staff for being “just overwhelmingly cooperative” with police requests.
For both Brown and Villaraigosa, the day was a reminder that even in a starkly anti-incumbent environment, there are some benefits to being in office. That was particularly true for Brown. Locked in a tight race for governor with Republican Meg Whitman, Brown had his picture splashed on newspapers, websites and over the television airwaves in triumph — without paying a penny for it.
In Brown’s case, the circumstances also allowed him to be visibly tough on crime, countering a lingering stereotype for any Democrat. He noted in his brief remarks that his office would be in court this week to defend California’s right to use DNA in pursuit of criminals, a practice he considers constitutional.
But the breakout politician of the day was Beck. He handled the news conference with the smoothness that had been one of his strong suits in the contest to succeed William Bratton last year.
He opened his remarks by praising his officers then, quickly, Villaraigosa and the victim’s families, arrayed behind the officials on the podium.
When the questions began, he called on Charlene Muhammad, a representative of the Final Call, the news organization founded by Louis Farrakhan. She asked about the families’ role in keeping the case alive, and Beck responded with emotion.
For detectives, he said, “these are long, drawn-out, tedious investigations, in which you can lose hope. And that hope is renewed by the families.” They made “sure that people saw the victims as people, with faces and lives ... “
Beck spoke of the Grim Sleeper case with familiarity for a reason: Before his ascension to chief, he had been in charge of it, as chief of detectives.
But as much as the case successfully closed that chapter for him, it also served as a metaphor for the department’s relationship with the community where the victims lived and died. In the 1980s, when the first of the killings took place, the LAPD was both the institution that protected South Los Angeles and the one that alienated large swaths of the area with paramilitary tactics that swept up guilty and innocent alike.
Beck worked there then, during what he once called the department’s “dark days.” Last week marked another public assertion that, for all the imperfections, things are brighter now. A heartfelt comparison of past and present came from the father of one of the victims.
“I felt that the department had given up,” Porter Alexander said of the investigation in the years after his daughter, Alicia, was found dead in 1988. Now, he said, he was “elated.” He turned to the detectives.
“I give them 100 percent behind what they did. Thank you very much.”