Watts: Chief Parker’s legacy

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Los Angeles Police Chief William H. Parker mops his brow during the Watts riots. August 12, 1965. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Public Library

This week on Press Play, we’re using the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots to talk about what has changed in the South L.A. community, and what has stayed the same. 

Chief William Parker is now seen as a relic; an old-school, hard-edged racist cop whose heavy-handed tactics help create fertile ground for the 1965 Watts riots.

But the reality is much more interesting.

According to John Buntin, author of “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City,” Parker transformed the LAPD from a goon squad and into a professional police force. The militarization of the police that we now see as a problem was then a way of controlling a politically-controlled, corrupt police department.

“Militarization was itself was a reform movement,” says Buntin. It was a movement “born of the lawless conduct of the 1930s and ’40s when police departments like the LAPD ran unmonitored intelligence units, gathered opposition research on critics and engaged in all manner of frankly illegal activities. So militarizing command, creating rigid lines of command and spans of control was a reform and Chief Parker was a reformer par excellence. He came in 1950 determined to root out corruption and in that he succeeded.”

But its inherent racism and heavy-handed tactics created so much animosity in communities of color, that the riots were almost a fait accompli.

Parker was raised in Deadwood, South Dakota, the grandson of a DA. He would become a lawyer himself and an LAPD cop who’d come up in the ranks to become chief in 1950. He was smart and controlled, but also blind to a city – and a world – that was changing around him.

One of Chief Parker’s former speechwriters was LAPD officer, Gene Roddenberry; the same Gene Roddenberry who created Star Trek. “He actually based Mr. Spock on Chief Parker, he was a very analytic rational person, very dismissive of emotions and of others who were less intelligent than he,” says Buntin.

But his tactics and attitudes would not die with him, that would only happen when one of the cops who oversaw his response to the 1965 riots, Chief Darryl Gates, was ousted after the 1992 riots.

Parker intended that “Dragnet” – the first police procedural – would burnish the image of the LAPD. It was produced with the assistance of the department.

Find more on the Watts Riots at kcrw.com/watts.