Bernard Parks, City Hall's Lone Wolf, Looks to the Finish Line

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Here’s a new way to think about the members of the City Council: Knowing you would never get the time back, how long would you spend watching a documentary about a councilmember’s life?

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For eight of the cabal I’d waste no more than the 30 seconds it takes to watch a McDonald’s ad. For another five I’d drop about 10 minutes each. I’d use a sit-com length of time for a documentary on Council President Herb Wesson, primarily for the combative elements.

That being said, I recently watched a 110-minute documentary on outgoing Eighth District Councilman Bernard Parks. According to the councilman and Bernard Parks Jr., his son, chief of staff and the film’s director and producer, that means I have no life. 

I won’t disagree, but Biography, Battles and Bernard (which is getting some final edits) is a reminder of an incomparable and fascinating career. It arrives at a fitting time, as on June 30 a termed-out Parks will close a 50-year run in public service, with the last 12 on the council. 

That career, including five years as chief of police, is what brought me to Parks’ office last week on the fourth floor of City Hall. Sitting in a sparsely decorated conference room, Parks, in a tie and a white shirt with his B.C.P. initials monogrammed on the cuffs, was thoughtful and engaging. He was relaxed, which hasn’t always been a hallmark of his career, and opinionated, which has been a constant.

Bernard Parks calls it like he sees it, and when making those calls he operates with a steely confidence and a fear-no-consequences approach. That, however, can put him at odds with his fellow council members. Just consider the schedule worked by most Los Angeles Police Department officers: Although few people realize it, many cops work three 12-hour or four 10-hour shifts a week. Parks has long railed against this, arguing that a five-day-a-week schedule would significantly boost deployment. 

The current schedule is a favorite of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing rank-and-file officers. The LAPPL is also a financial and endorsement force in local elections. Council members, Parks maintains, are loath to upset the apple cart.

“[Changing the schedule] makes a lot of sense, but you find in many decisions, particularly in elected officials, sense is at the bottom of the barrel,” Parks said. “The issue is, there’s a tendency that people want to satisfy those who support them, and there’s a herd mentality, that if we stick together they can’t kill us all. Therefore we keep making these same mistakes.”

Highs and Lows

Parks’ career has been defined by a series of highs and lows that range from inspiring to heartbreaking.

He joined the LAPD in 1965, just months before the Watts riots erupted. He met his future wife, Bobbie, while on a traffic detail at Sixth Street and Broadway in Downtown — she approached him with the line, “What does a girl have to do to get arrested?” It was a fortunate question, as it not only led to five children, but it came the day before Parks was moved to another post. They might have never met.

Parks rocketed up the ranks, and at 33 became the youngest African American to make captain. However, as Biography recounts, when he received the car that came with the job, someone had scrawled the N-word across it. 

Race and racism were major factors in then-Chief Daryl Gates’ LAPD, though Parks continued to ascend. The documentary notes that when Gates finally resigned in the wake of the Rodney King riots, Parks was so sure he would get the top job that he bought the four silver stars traditionally affixed to a chief’s collar.

Instead, outsider Willie Williams was hired. His reign was disastrous, filled with missteps, including the demotion of a popular Parks. Williams didn’t get a second term, and Parks, with the backing of Mayor Richard Riordan, became chief in 1997.

There were numerous highs during his time as top cop. Crime fell to historic lows, and diversity in the department increased, with more women and minorities reaching posts such as captain or commander. In 1998, People magazine featured Parks in its “50 Most Beautiful People” issue, complete with a dapper photo in a sharp suit

There was tragedy, too. In 2000, Parks’ granddaughter, Lori Gonzalez, was shot and killed near a fast food restaurant in South Los Angeles (a gang member was later convicted of the crime). The murder rocked not just the close-knit family, but the city.

There was also acrimony. Parks could be irascible (the nickname Bitter Bernie came later) and developed a reputation as a strict disciplinarian and a micromanager, even dictating how officers’ boots should be laced (the documentary questions why he got the “micromanager” tag, rather than the more praise-worthy “hands-on leader”). He was tested by the explosion of the Rampart scandal. He fired 140 police officers who, he said last week, “we thought were inappropriate to be employees of the city.” 

He also continually drew the ire of the LAPPL, and in 2002, Mayor Jim Hahn refused to nominate Parks for a second five-year term. Many observers were shocked by Parks’ rise and rapid fall.

William Bratton became chief, but Parks refused to go away. He won his City Council seat in 2003. Two years later he ran for mayor against Hahn. 

He finished fourth, but had his revenge when Hahn lost to Antonio Villaraigosa. African-American voters who had largely supported Hahn in 2001 this time turned against him.

Parks today sees that run as a victory.

“We ran for mayor for a couple of reasons,” he said in the interview. “We thought we could do a good job as mayor, but the secondary issue was we thought the city needed a new mayor. And so the key is, we didn’t succeed in our first effort, but we succeeded in our second.”

Today Jim Hahn is a Superior Court judge.

Falling Out

Parks had a strong initial run representing the Eighth District, which covered a large portion of impoverished South Los Angeles, but also included landmarks such as Exposition Park. He established a good rapport with then-Council President Eric Garcetti and got the plum assignment of chairing the council’s Budget and Finance Committee. He earned credit for a tough austerity approach, including the reduction of thousands of jobs, helping pull the city through a bitter financial crisis. 

Things changed when Wesson became council president. Parks refused to back Wesson’s ascent, and he and then-Councilwoman Jan Perry had a notorious falling-out with Wesson. That was followed by a city redistricting process in which Wesson appeared to punish Parks and Perry by carving up their districts, giving key economic drivers to other council members.

Parks also lost his Budget and Finance post (the committee is now chaired by Paul Krekorian, whose work there is often praised). Biographydescribes Parks as having become a “lone wolf” on the council. The Los Angeles Times last year put it differently, describing him as being in the “political wilderness.”

Whatever the terminology, the veteran lawmaker saw his clout severely diminished. Still, Parks makes no apologies, saying he would rather maintain his integrity than support someone or something he doesn’t believe in. 

“We’ve not done poorly in the sense of the things we’ve worked on in our district,” he said. “My district is the only one building sidewalks — not because Herb Wesson blessed that, but because we found a way to do that. My district led the city five out of six years in creating jobs. Not because of Herb Wesson, but because we figured out how to do it. These are things we find out, that your success is more dependent on what you do, as opposed to all these little games people play at council, where they believe their life is dependent on what committee they have, where they must bow and genuflect.”

Parks said he’s finished with City Hall. He’s looking forward to a vacation with his wife and finishing a remodel of his house. He’d like to join some corporate boards and help companies play a bigger role in minority communities. 

“I never want to get elected for anything,” he told me. “I never want to take another exam.”

After 50 years, it’s clear Bernard Parks has done enough.

Biography, Battles and Bernard will be available on the city’s Channel 35 in July.

regardie@downtownnews.com

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015