William H. Parker and the thin blue line: Politics, public relations and policing in postwar Los Angeles

by Kramer, Alisa Sarah, Ph.D., AMERICAN UNIVERSITY, 2007, 358 pages; 3286654


This dissertation is an analysis of the power of the chief of police in postwar Los Angeles, his use of politics and public relations, and the consequences of police reforms he instituted in the Los Angeles Police Department. The political dimensions of the tenure of Chief William H. Parker, who served from 1950 to 1966, are part of a much larger story about the chief's career—his local and national reputations, and how he influenced the city's race relations with the police department. Parker exerted extraordinary influence on the LAPD and the city of Los Angeles because he took advantage of decentralized city government and life tenure to wield uncontested power over elected and appointed officials. At the same time he used public relations brilliantly to draw attention to himself as a pioneer in postwar police reform and to his department as a model of professional policing. An analysis of Parker's tenure provides an understanding of the LAPD's turbulent history, its contentious relations with minorities, its extensive coverage by the media and its popularity with the entertainment industry. Such an analysis can also provide an understanding of Los Angeles municipal government, the city's politics and the local press at mid-century.

Because no biography of Parker exists, an analysis of his tenure as chief is woven into a narrative of his life. Parker came to Los Angeles as a young man in the early 1920s from Lead, South Dakota, where he was raised a Catholic and embraced a strict code of ethics. As a police officer advancing through the ranks, Parker maintained his distance from a corrupt police culture where officers routinely beat suspects and engaged in graft in alcohol, prostitution and vice.

During the first two years as chief, Parker transformed the LAPD into a modern organization with professional officers, weakened the Police Commission as an oversight board and cultivated the city's business leaders to form a strong base of support which lasted throughout his sixteen years in office. He used his bully pulpit to praise his officers, and warn the public of the communist menace and lax morality which would hasten the downfall of western civilization. Only the police, he argued, could maintain democracy and the social order. Despite his political skills, however, he could not suppress racial tensions that dogged him throughout his tenure. As civil rights leaders and their supporters challenged Parker on the conduct of his officers, he demonized his opponents and accused them of communism, undermining police morale and threatening American democracy.

When race riots exploded in August, 1965, they doomed his career and his reputation. He died in office at sixty-four the following year. He left a legacy of increasing tensions and abuse of the chiefs power. When the city again exploded in violence in 1992, his legacy ended when voters abolished life tenure, and forced the retirement of the current chief who had modeled his own career after Parker's.

AdviserRobert Griffith
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsBiographies; American history; Criminology
Publication Number3286654

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