Kenneth O. Garner died unexpectedly earlier this month. He was a deputy chief, third in LAPD’s chain of command and chief of South Bureau. When he did not show up at a Town Hall meeting in South Central Los Angeles (SCLA) a week or so before his death, I sensed something was wrong and later heard that he had not been feeling well. The Town Hall meeting may not have been priority for every high-level cop, but Chief Garner’s presence at low profile community events underscored his contention that poor communities deserved the same attention and quality service given other areas. He repeatedly expressed the need for accountability, not just by cops, but all concerned with improving conditions throughout the city, insisting that primary responsibility for reducing crime and violence rests with local communities. He said this was especially true in SCLA where he grew up and maintained strong ties through the years.
Garner believed systemic negligence still fuels inner-city poverty, inferior schools, violence and crime. He also said the on-going impact of these debilitating factors tends to obscure both personal and collective responsibility for solving these problems, i.e., people tend to rationalize their non-involvement, feeling conditions are so bad that they are powerless to change anything- also reflecting an absence of hope.
Expressions of disbelief and profound sadness poured in when Garner died. The sheer magnitude of the response in parts of the city was overwhelming: From Chief William Bratton to active and inactive gang members, respect and admiration for Garner were widespread, a moving tribute to his dedicated service.
Chief Garner supported reforms within LAPD and in other institutions such as public education, as well. For him, problems and solutions were inter-related and all parties have a responsibility to help solve them. While a stickler for following rules and regulations, he didn’t hesitate to take risks necessary to help bring about change. He was both a visionary and results-oriented taskmaster.
Chief Garner played a central role in helping to diversity LAPD, improve its ties to communities of color and to reduce crime, especially in SCLA. His many assignments through the years included stints on the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.
Ken Garner embodied the new image that LAPD seeks: He supported actual reform and relentlessly championed positive relationships between cops and communities. He also denounced rogue cops and criminals of any ilk, and was an advocate for civil rights and police rights-something too few cops seem able to do and maintain their integrity.
Garner was especially proud of his last project, an innovative re-entry program for young offenders after incarceration. But even while applauding intervention strategies, he emphasized that prevention was the key to reducing crime in the long run.
Chief Garner showed up at Cease Fire meetings, maintaining his cool and never ducking questions critical of LAPD. (Cease Fire is an anti-gang violence intervention group made up of OGs, active gang members and interested others. Their affinity to Garner was plain in their unbridled expressions of respect and admiration after his death. They referred to him as “one of us.” (Formed after 13-year-old Devin Brown was killed by an LAPD officer, Community Call to Action and Accountability (CCAA) also had the highest respect for Chief Garner; to a person, they refer to his death as a tremendous loss to the community.)
Ken Garner’s integrity, unwavering desire to improve police-community relations and steely, no-nonsense insistence that those under him do quality work, were evident throughout his career. Perhaps these characteristics were best exemplified during Garner’s last assignment in South Bureau that includes the area where he grew up and maintained close ties through the years.
Reducing violence, especially among Blacks, was one of Garner’s highest priorities. He acknowledged the complexities in coming up with solutions but insisted things would get better as LAPD continued to change and work collaboratively with local residents for mutual benefit.
Chief Garner also talked about a need for strong, effective Black leadership. (Actually, he embodied such leadership with his vision, integrity, work ethic, commitment to his job and communities he served.) He believed that greater personal and group responsibility are indispensible to effectively challenge on-going barriers to justice and full equality.
Kenneth O. Garner was an exceptional human being and a natural leader. He was a staunch advocate for both effective law enforcement and community empowerment, which made him a breed apart. His contributions will continue to enhance the lives of countless men, women and children in Los Angeles and beyond.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail