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Target of Criticism Within Ranks : Bell Gardens Council Supports Police Chief

March 14, 1985|MELINDA BURNS | Times Staff Writer

BELL GARDENS — Confronted with recent strong criticism of Police Chief William Donohoe from the Police Officers Assn., the City Council this week lined up with Donohoe, the man it hired in 1983 to fix a department it felt had grown lazy under lax supervision.

"To date I think the chief is doing an excellent job of establishing policy, of getting an organization together," Councilman Marvin Graves said in an interview Tuesday. "That was sadly lacking at the time he came here."

Donohoe, 48, was hired in July, 1983, to replace Police Chief Phil Hensen, who retired. Since then, officer productivity has increased, liability claims have been dramatically reduced and citizen complaints are down, the council said in a resolution of support it passed Monday.

"Drastic changes in management style" implemented by the chief have caused "a temporary lowering of morale," the council conceded in its resolution, but it said the city would "encourage (Donohoe) to stay the course."

The association last week voted 33 to 6, with two abstentions, to censure Donohoe, saying the chief had failed to staff special units such as gang and narcotic details and initiate canine and motorcycle programs.

Officers complained of "overzealous supervision" and said Donohoe was isolated from officers, resulting in a "negative atmosphere" and a "chronically undermanned" department that "failed to address the major crime problems in Bell Gardens."

Chief Thanks Council

On Monday, Donohoe thanked the council and City Manager Claude Booker for their support. "To say that I am overwhelmed is the understatement of the year," he said. ". . . I feel that with your guidance and support I have been able to weather the strain."

In an interview Tuesday, Donohoe said the department is only two officers short of full staff, and that he has aggressively sought quality applicants to fill the vacancies. Donohoe noted that 13 of 19 recent job candidates failed to pass a psychological test the department requires, slowing the hiring process.

The gang and narcotics details, which usually have two officers each, are currently staffed--but with only one detective each, Donohoe said. "The special positions have to wait," he said, until the openings for patrolmen can be filled.

Booker praised Donohoe for making patrol positions a top priority, arguing that "high visibility is the best deterrent" to crime.

Poor Response

When he took over as chief, Donohoe said, he learned from citizens' complaints, field visits and observation that officers were not patrolling the streets frequently enough and that they were not responding quickly to calls or not responding at all. When officers did arrive, he said, "people felt they were not getting reasonable treatment."

To change that, Donohoe said, he tightened supervision of officers, establishing a firm chain of command.

The Police Officers Assn. views those changes as "an overzealous attempt at supervision," said vice president Carl Williams, a detective assigned to the gang detail. Under new rules set up by Donohoe, he said, patrolmen must request permission from a sergeant to talk to another officer in the street.

Association president Doug Kingery, a narcotics investigator, complained that officers are now required to obtain approval from a sergeant to take a break to use the bathroom. In the past, the dispatchers routinely approved these requests, Kingery said.

Officers "feel that they are baby-sat," Williams said. "We are mature adults. We are doing the job, and people that need to go to jail, go to jail."

Donohoe justifies his demand for "100% supervision," arguing that sergeants have to know the whereabouts of officers at all times to ensure quick response to calls.

Communication at Issue

At the root of the problem, detectives Kingery and Williams said, is a lack of communication. They depicted an aloof chief who sees officers by appointment only, has never called a department-wide meeting and has refused twice in the past three months to meet with the general association membership.

"He controls our lives, our careers," Kingery said. "The guys are concerned that the chief is getting farther and farther away."

But Lt. Richard Webb claimed that many of the officers do not "understand what (Donohoe) is trying to do." An open-door policy is "very rare" in police departments today, Webb said. Donohoe made "a change for the better" in the department, Webb said, by requiring more accountability from police officers.

Many officers, however, see it as a change for the worse. Morale is so low that at least 10 of the department's 41 sworn officers have applications pending with other police departments, Kingery said.

Gang, Drug Activity

In a city with widespread street gang and drug activity, he said, the department is understaffed and cannot adequately address the crime problems. Qualified applicants are not attracted to the department in part because there are no special units to strive for, Kingery said.

"You have patrol and you have detectives," Williams said. "Nobody wants to work patrol or beat the streets for 20 years."

Another dispute between association members and the department centers on the work schedule of sergeants. The association claims the chief violated a city contract providing for a 10-hour day, four-day week for sergeants, while the city says the contract has no such provisions for sergeants.

Kingery on Monday expressed disappointment in the council's unqualified support of Donohoe, adding that the association would request a meeting with the city manager and councilmen to "address the problems we have identified in the Police Department."

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