New Times LA: Scientology attorney not good fit for LAPD Commissoner

15 Feb 2001


Beat It!

Gerald Chaleff was a poor fit as L.A. Police Commission president from day one. By Jill Stewart

God I love it when I'm right. Last week, Mayor Richard Riordan finally woke up and fired painfully ineffective Police Commission president Gerald Chaleff, who proved incapable of overcoming his 20-year history as an anti-cop defense lawyer to act as an overseer of the police brass and police policy.

As I wrote in my column in June 1999, Chaleff spent his career belittling cops in courtrooms. He did so because he was a well-heeled defense attorney whose job was to save the unsavable butts of some of the slimiest criminals in Los Angeles, including that of the Hillside Strangler.

Even creepier, in some ways, is the fact that Chaleff is still a top attorney for the manipulative Church of Scientology.

Chaleff was a poor fit in the commission president's job from day one. He was appointed by the mayor only because mayoral confidant Bill Wardlaw urged Riordan to pick Chaleff in order to defuse the anger among liberals over the slow pace of LAPD reform. Wardlaw clearly got the idea from his wife, federal judge Kim Wardlaw, who is one of several close powerful female pals of Chaleff's.

It is usually a bad idea to practice the politics of accommodation, as Riordan foolishly did in selecting Chaleff. Invariably, if you give power to those with whom you disagree on fundamental issues, you'll live to regret it.

One of Chaleff's worst actions was his effort, as part of negotiations over a possible federal takeover of the LAPD, to strip Los Angeles police officers of their basic rights during criminal trials in which they are the arresting cop. Clearly carrying water for his pals in the Los Angeles-area defense bar, Chaleff wanted to permit all sorts of protected private information about the arresting officers to be provided to defense attorneys. It would have blatantly violated the Police Officer's Bill of Rights.

Had Chaleff gotten his way on several fronts he was pursuing during those negotiations, the LAPD would have been virtually run by the feds today. Luckily, the negotiations were put on a more reasonable course by Deputy Mayor Kelly Martin. Now, the "federal consent decree" that will soon be signed, although still far too reliant on micromanaging by a federal judge, at least gives the city day-to-day power over its police.

At the same time that Chaleff was working to give away the store to the feds, he consistently dragged out and delayed proposed police reforms in the wake of the Rampart scandal. Chaleff was hobbled by his inability to make decisions that might ruffle feathers, unlike his far more decisive predecessors, Ray Fisher and Edith Perez.

His dithering was crystallized in an exchange of letters last December between Police Commissioner Raquelle de la Rocha and Chaleff's staff ally, commission executive director Joe Gunn.

Arguing on behalf of Chaleff's position, Gunn wanted to delay any action on police reform for two more months so that public hearings could be held to air the findings of the 160 lawyers (that's correct, one hundred sixty lawyers) who wrote what is being called the Rampart Independent Review Panel. In classic Chaleff parlance, Gunn was worried that "it would be a breach of faith with the Panel and the public if we did not hold immediate hearings" on the panel's findings, which he said would last from December into February.

Commissioner de la Rocha, sick and tired of yet more delays, argued that action by the Police Commission was many months overdue, that numerous hearings and expert reports had already been presented, that the commissioners had all read the Rampart Independent Review Panel's report, and that the equivocating and delaying by the commission had to stop.

"The time for passive listening and observation has passed," de la Rocha noted. "We should take action by promptly identifying and addressing the matters we believe are the highest priority. There are too many cooks in the kitchen while the public sits at the table waiting to be served. I say we stop collecting recipes and get to work."

Under pressure from de la Rocha and Riordan, Chaleff finally agreed to hold all the hearings on the Independent Panel's findings during a single day. The Police Commission then forwarded six key reforms to the city council. And that is where everything stopped dead again, in the council's ad hoc committee on public safety.

On Jan. 29, city council members Cindy Miscikowski and Mike Feuer, both Chaleff supporters, rather incredibly voted to stop the six reforms dead, tabling all of them for discussion at an undetermined later date. This so pissed off City Attorney James Hahn that he wrote a letter to Miscikowski and Feuer pointedly reminding them that "failing to act on needed reforms...is not in the best interest of the city."

But the coy political games have continued unabated.

Riordan, whose last day in office is June 30, clearly has begun to feel panicky. He hardly wants to leave key reforms up to his successor and watch helplessly as the department's best and brightest cops keep running off to jobs elsewhere.

Dennis Zine, a former president of the Police Protective League, which represents the rank-and-file officers in labor negotiations, says, "We are officially backing the mayor in his firing of Gerald Chaleff, but on a personal level I would have to say it is too little, too late. A lot more has to be taken care of besides the Chaleff problem."

Zine, a city council candidate in the San Fernando Valley's Third District, ran down a list of problems: the persistent failure of the Police Commission to make police chief Bernard Parks reinstate the popular senior lead officer positions around the city, the decision (promoted by Chaleff) to exclude the police union from the lengthy negotiations over what should be contained in the federal consent decree, and the failure of the Police Commission under Chaleff to address plummeting morale and plummeting arrests despite a noticeable jump in the crime rate.

"It's funny," says Zine. "Chaleff, I thought, was going to be a reformist."

I don't know why Riordan finally realized Chaleff had to go. Maybe it was his own newly revitalized office, featuring hard-charging deputy mayor Ben Austin, who arrived in Los Angeles a few months ago fresh from his job among an elite circle in the Clinton administration. Or maybe it was simply that Riordan finally flipped his calendar forward and realized that Chaleff had run down the clock to just five months left.

The mayor is not protecting Parks by axing Chaleff, as many have suggested. He's put the chief on notice that he wants a number of historic reforms out of Parks, and he wants them right now. Recently, a chastened Parks handed Riordan a victory that the mayor had long sought, agreeing to create a set of formal discipline guidelines so that cops know exactly what kind of behavior is not allowed and exactly how much punishment to expect if they foul up.

Sounds obvious, doesn't it? Yet for 20 years, from Daryl Gates to Willie Williams to Parks, every chief had refused to create a specific set of guidelines. In the current Rampart era, the lack of such rules has led to the widespread belief among the rank and file that Parks fails to discipline his own brass but exacts tremendous punishment for the same infractions among the troops.

That perception has been fueled by the fact that no big "brass" have been disciplined or identified for failing to police their own men in the Rampart Division.

"Agreeing to discipline guidelines...could not be done under Chaleff because he'd be running to the L.A. Times and bad-mouthing everyone involved and making sure the whole thing was delayed and bogged down," says a top city hall source.

Lest anyone get spun by Chaleffites such as Councilwoman Miscikowski, who (along with my misguided colleague The Finger) has decried Chaleff's firing -- and has proposed that Chaleff be hired by the city council as a "consultant" on police-reform matters -- it is important to note that Miscikowski and Chaleff pal around together.

(I am told by a source that Miscikowski, Kim Wardlaw, attorney Leslie Abramson, and several other powerful women make up a harem of telephone buddies that Chaleff assiduously maintains, apparently in order to feed his insatiable need for high-level gossip.)

As I noted in my column last year, Chaleff was the top background source for the Times during its negative coverage of the Police Commission's overdue but successful effort to oust Inspector General Katherine Mader. The clueless daily, naturally, sided with Mader.

Luckily those in power did not listen to Chaleff, and Mader was replaced by the effective and far more qualified Jeffrey Eglash. The moment Chaleff saw the writing on the wall, he began saying he had pushed all along for Mader's ouster. Yuck.

Clearly, the firing of Chaleff is Riordan's shot across the bow intended to wake up Parks to a new way of thinking and a faster way of acting. Although Riordan and most other elected officials respect Parks for being a tough disciplinarian, a strong manager, and an up-front person, his rigid personality and refusal to alter his plans are legendary.

Some observers were confused by Riordan's approval of a major raise for Parks just a few days before the mayor started talking tough. But my sources tell me the timing on the raise was "unfortunate but unavoidable" since the raises had long since been negotiated and had to be sent through a months-long bureaucratic process, oddly enough landing on the mayor's desk just as he was preparing to crack down on the department.

Parks' agreement last week to finally adopt a set of formal discipline guidelines will create a tremendous amount of goodwill in the LAPD. But Deputy Mayor Martin notes that "this is just the first step" in Riordan's effort to fast-track languishing reforms now that the ponderous Chaleff is out of the way.

For example, she says the LAPD is taking far too long to investigate complaints against officers, spending as much time on the more serious complaints as on the minor ones and in the process unintentionally giving short shrift to "the really serious complaints that would allow us to identify the problem officers. We need to reform the complaint system now, not months from now."

So hang on folks. If Riordan stays on his current roll, don't be surprised to see Parks holding regular press conferences to announce reforms, the city council staging various press events to whine that Riordan has stolen their thunder, and the liberal agenda-istas sending out missives decrying the upending of their beloved "process." Yes, we're going to miss Dick Riordan when he's gone.


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