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Around the South Bay

Image, Discipline Problems Can Handcuff the Police

August 15, 1985|GEORGE STEIN

"We are concerned about the image of the overall police department. We have a damn good image and we are proud of it. We have got good support from our council. We wouldn't have that if it hadn't been for our image . "

--Torrance Police Chief Donald Nash.

"If we go to the Civil Service Commission, we will have some bad press . "

--Torrance Police Capt. Bruce Randall.

On Monday, the Torrance Police Department will go to the Civil Service Commission. It is time for the resumption of an extended hearing into the firing of Torrance Police Officer John Maley.

Like earlier sessions, the coming testimony promises to air a full load of departmental dirty laundry. Maley's attorney, Richard Shinee, will attempt to show that his client was singled out for harsh treatment and that the department did not discipline other officers--or handed out wrist slaps--for conduct similar to his client's.

The case illustrates the complex entanglement of the rights of individual officers and citizens, relations between police administration and the rank-and-file, the role of perceptions, and the accountability of local government's arguably most important, if least open, bureaucracy.

"There is a lot of power that goes into the police officer . . .--the ability to deprive someone of their liberty, which hardly anyone else has"--not to mention the power to shoot people suspected of crimes, said Robert di Grazia, a former Boston police commissioner who is an expert witness and legal consultant in cases involving police procedures.

"So there is a tendency to look very closely at what they do," he said. "Often they are under a microscope."

The Maley case has set ranking officers in other South Bay departments to ruminating.

"We are damn glad Torrance is in the headlines and not us," said Capt. David Barnes of the Hawthorne Police Department, where allegations of police brutality have been an issue in the recent past. "We were getting clobbered."

For the Redondo Beach department, the Maley case has served as a reminder of potential problems, said Chief Roger Moulton.

"Regardless of how outstanding you feel your agency is, we are all vulnerable because we are all dealing with human beings," he said.

Police discipline, which he considers the most difficult part of his job, "is such a complicated process because of the legalistic issues involved," Moulton said.

Police take statements from witnesses and other officers, hold internal hearings, propose action. The chief must take into account the officer's record and the departmental history of discipline. He must decide whether to simply correct the misbehavior or impose a stiffer penalty to set standards within the department and satisfy outside criticism.

To take a hypothetical example, in a department where tardiness is chronic, a chief might begin a campaign against it by levying an especially heavy penalty as a warning to others.

In more serious cases, however, firing is sometimes appropriate.

"That is the time when you do a lot of soul searching. When you find out that the bottom line is that you have to go forward with the termination, that is a very difficult and stressful decision to make," Moulton said.

That does not end the process. An internal decision may be appealed to the city manager. The officer may, as Maley did, appeal to the Civil Service Commission, and beyond that, file a lawsuit.

Both may lead to bad publicity for the department and erosion of its image and acceptance in the community, officials say.

In Torrance, "where we enjoy the full support of our community," Capt. Mel Hone said, "the way our officers conduct themselves is probably more important . . . than in any other city."

As the process unwinds, rank-and-file sentiment frequently shifts from hostility toward an officer to sympathy--provided the case does not involve outright criminal conduct by the officer.

"The other cops won't tolerate that. When you've really got the bad guys, the cops come right out," said Hawthorne's Barnes, who worked personnel cases for 10 years.

But in cases where an officer is temperamentally unsuited for police work--the square pegs in round holes, as Barnes terms them--"it is very common that these little birdies will come land on your shoulder and whisper in your ear, but when you take some action, you can't find these guys," he said. "They don't want to be publicly responsible for saying this guy doesn't fit. The fact is these housecleaning chores are the responsibility of everyone."

Di Grazia said that the most common legitimate police complaint about discipline is unfairness.

"You might have someone of higher rank who might damage a car and get off easier than a patrol officer who damages a car. Because personalities are involved, there can be situations where one particular police officer is not dealt with as severely as another police officer," he said.

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