PASADENA — As a policeman working his way up through the ranks, James Robenson was known as a streetwise cop who did what it took to get the job done.
The new Pasadena police chief recalled that he liked to approach a well-known dope dealer in a crowd, give him a $10 bill and say "thanks" to discredit the pusher among his customers. He recalled that he once broke up a card game by palming a card and making it look as if the house was crooked. And then there was the time he said he helped persuade a crook to steal a car so that evidence could be gathered against another criminal.
For tactics like those, colleagues like Det. Clyde Ito characterize Robenson as "unorthodox." But most also seem to agree with Ito that Robenson is "innovative, different and controversial."
Paradoxical might be another way to describe Robenson, a former commander who was sworn in this week as the first black police chief in the city's 99-year history.
Even as a senior officer with 21 years on the force and two college degrees, he still hung around the squad room and dropped in on detectives to keep his feel for the cop on the street.
"I identify myself as a street cop," Robenson, a 6-foot, 200-pounder said.
"I can't lose that touch, that street moxie. I like to remember the emotions."
At the same time, he says that improving community relations will remain the cornerstone of department policy and he insists that his officers be sensitive to the residents they serve and "not confuse crooks with citizens."
In one breath--sounding like the sociology major he was at California State University, Los Angeles--he discusses "normative values" of various segments of the community and how to "market" different crime prevention programs to meet the needs of those groups.
In the next, he talks of police taking back turf and delivers his favorite message for criminals: "To crooks in Pasadena, and I've known a lot of them, I want them to know this is not their place."
The 44-year-old Robenson remembers the night about three years ago when he tackled a young father trying to commit suicide by jumping off a freeway overpass. He was called to the scene at the request of the distraught man, who had met Robenson 15 years earlier and still remembered him.
He frequently talks about keeping the "common touch." But he mentions that he lives in Upper Hastings, an affluent area of Pasadena and that his weekend social contacts include a well-known author and a publishing mogul.
Robenson, who prevailed over two other finalists for the $55,116-a-year post, seems to be widely respected within the 202-officer department, at City Hall and in the community.
"Jim offers some important strengths in the role of police chief which I think will be good for the city," Mayor William Bogaard said. "I think Jim is flexible and will keep a sharp eye out for ways in which innovative techniques can be used to improve public safety in Pasadena. He knows the community. He mixes well with the various segments of Pasadena, which is a diverse and complicated community."
Stephen Mack, president of the Pasadena branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, lauded Robenson's appointment. Mack said he expected it to be well received, particularly among the city's nearly 25,000 black residents. "He is well respected," Mack said. "He knows the ropes of this community. He's cooperative, friendly and knowledgable."
Robenson assumes management of a department that has had racial strife in the past. The department, which has 36 black officers, was sued in 1978 for discriminating against blacks and Latinos in hiring and promotion policies and settled the suit for $500,000 in 1983. The suit had alleged that only 13% of the force was black or Latino, while those minorities made up 35% of the city's general population. Robenson said he thinks he relates well to minority communities, but added that he does not believe that race was a major issue in his selection and said that the department is relatively free of racial tension.
Sgt. Jorge Garcia, who was Robenson's first training officer when the chief was a rookie, agreed that the department has little racial tension and credited Robenson with a high degree of integrity. "You aren't going to do anything wrong and get away with it because you're his friend," Garcia said. "I just finished getting a written reprimand, because he thought I was wrong and if he thought it was more serious, I'm sure I would have gotten a day off (suspension)."
"I've known the chief since he was a sergeant," said Detective Ito. "He's very straightforward. He addresses the issue right away. He gets to the point. You know where you stand. The general feeling on the floor (among the majority of officers) is we'll support him."
Most of the officers interviewed say Robenson does things differently from traditional police management.