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Law Officials See Simi Police Contract as Evidence of Professionalism

July 30, 1989|LESLIE BERGER | Times Staff Writer

The Simi Valley police began somewhat shakily, if idealistically, as an outgrowth of the 1960s and some freethinking town fathers. But after years of struggling to be taken seriously and to overcome a reputation for misconduct, the force has achieved a new level of professionalism, in part by virtue of its latest contract negotiations, law enforcement officials say.

The police union's four-year contract, which is scheduled for approval Monday by the City Council, gives members wage parity with their counterparts in a dozen Southern California cities of comparable size--most importantly, higher-paying cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

"This could be a turning point . . . to make us competitive with the rest of the world," said Sgt. Gary Collins, spokesman for the Simi Valley Police Officers Assn.

Although such salary formulas are common in the state, according to the League of California Cities and several law enforcement experts, they are new to the Simi Valley Police Department, which until now has been only informally compared with departments limited to Ventura County.

Collins suggested that the wage formula will not only benefit union members--about 85 of the department's 100 officers--but should trigger more applications and ultimately improve the caliber of the force.

"We may be about to make that jump from a small-town police department to a large metropolitan police department," he said.

Paul Bechely, a negotiator with the consulting firm Employee Representation Services, agreed that, in principle, the contract should attract higher-quality job candidates.

"The applicants now are very much aware of the wage proposals and the salaries, the retirement benefits, the health insurance," Bechely said. "People ask that a lot more now than they did years and years ago."

Mayor Greg Stratton said the wage formula--achieved after tough negotiations and a three-week deadlock--symbolized the city's appreciation of its police force.

Sign of Recognition

"I think it should show that we have recognized them, as we believe they are, to be one of the best police departments in Southern California, right up there with all the rest," Stratton said.

Being regarded as other police forces has been a sensitive issue for the Simi Valley department, which began as an iconoclastic agency in 1971, two years after the city was incorporated, and later became a target of misconduct and brutality charges.

During the department's first few years, officers wore green blazers instead of traditional uniforms, discreetly concealed their weapons and drove plain white sedans instead of squad cars--a nod to the anti-war, anti-police sentiments of the time, according to Bruce Altman, Simi Valley's original city manager, and Sal Fasulo, president of the city's historical society.

"At the time it sounded like a real positive idea," Fasulo said. "There was a negative attachment to the police and what their service to the community meant, and so the idea of the non-traditional uniform was that this would soften any kind of a stern or hard-nosed, aggressive look."

Safety Agency

The experimentation by the department, known as the Simi Valley Community Safety Agency, went beyond image. Gone was the classic, military hierarchy of most police forces, and its officers--called safety agents--were hired not only as law enforcers but also as problem solvers. The young city's police agency drew national attention and in March, 1972, was featured on the cover of the governmental trade magazine American City.

But while gentility may have been the byword, respect was hard to come by, according to several of the original members of the force.

"I was on night watch once and made a traffic stop," Lt. Dick Thomas recalled, "and I got out of my white car wearing my green blazer, and I asked the driver for his license. . . . And he was very polite and very accommodating, but at one point he said, 'Excuse me, can you really do this? I thought only policemen can write tickets.' "

Confused with civilians and resisted by residents, the Community Safety Agency reverted to traditional law-enforcement methods and appearances by the mid-1970s.

"It didn't really work because the community didn't want that kind of service," Thomas said. Simi Valley "is a solid, Republican, middle-class kind of place with solid, Republican values. We were a cutting-edge sort of thing and there was a lot of resistance and misinterpretation."

Brutality Complaints

But with a traditional look came traditional problems: A string of brutality and misconduct complaints culminated in an investigation by the Ventura County district attorney's office into an alleged rape at the Simi Valley police station in 1981. The case involved a woman arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.

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