The Los Angeles Police Department's chief expert on use-of-force tactics said Friday that he has been abruptly reassigned in retaliation for testifying before the County Grand Jury in the Rodney King case and for later sharply warning the Christopher Commission about the department's routine misunderstanding of excessive force.
Sgt. Fred Nichols said he was notified that he must choose between one of two "meaningless tasks" that will remove him from his highly visible position as the department's premier supervisor at the police training academy and into what he considered a less prestigious position.
The department denied that the reassignment was retaliatory, describing the move as part of an overall redesign of the training program.
The incident marks the third time that the department's high command has been accused of punishing supervisors who spoke out against the LAPD in closed sessions before the Christopher Commission.
Stanley Sheinbaum, who as president of the Los Angeles Police Commission earlier warned Chief Daryl F. Gates not to retaliate against officers, said Friday he will investigate the Nichols matter to see if it is directly related to the sergeant's activities after the King beating on March 3.
"I don't like the looks of it," he said. "I just don't like anything that even appears to be retaliation."
Nichols, in an interview Friday at The Times, said he has suffered severe stress-related problems, including anxiety, insomnia and vomiting, since he was advised Sept. 12 that he was being removed.
"I can't work. I can't sleep," he said. "There's not one minute that I don't think about it. Sixteen years of working in specialized units, doing my tasks, and now, because I'm honest and fair, they do this to me.
"What career do I have left? It's gone. If you make waves in this department, it becomes close to impossible to ever promote again."
However, Cmdr. Robert Gil, a department spokesman, denied that Nichols was "in any way, shape, or form" being punished. Rather, he said, the department is reviewing its entire training process.
"We are looking at all facets of our training program," he said. "We're trying to get a fresh approach and this is one modification amongst many that are going to be coming up in the near and distant future."
Nichols, 38, was named officer-in-charge of the LAPD's physical training and self-defense unit in 1988, and became widely known among many law enforcement agencies nationwide as an expert on teaching officers how to handle violent suspects without reaching for their guns.
As a martial arts expert himself, he has taught about 2,000 LAPD recruits and provided in-service training for another 3,000 officers.
In Nichols' job evaluation for the first part of this year, Lt. Ron Seban and Capt. Robert W. Riley noted that he "is well qualified for promotion." He was rated a "superior" teacher. "His recommendations and opinions are well respected and used by the department's hierarchy in making management decisions," the evaluation said.
After the King beating, Nichols said, he testified before the grand jury that returned criminal indictments against three officers and one sergeant.
In April, Nichols said, he testified in a criminal trial against two Long Beach officers charged with misconduct for allegedly beating Don Jackson, a former Hawthorne police officer who had the incident secretly videotaped. The officers were eventually found not guilty.
Later, in an editorial in The Times, Jackson hailed Nichols as a "real hero" and added: "Nichols won't make any friends on the LAPD for testifying against fellow police officers."
In May, Nichols was interviewed by the Christopher Commission staff and also provided sworn testimony before the full commission in a closed meeting. A May 20 internal memo from a Christopher Commission staffer shows that his thoughts about the LAPD backed up what the commissioners later found in their disclosures of police brutality.
For instance, Nichols called "inadequate" the physical agility test administered to academy recruits. "The test itself is lax, measures physical abilities that are irrelevant, and is scored such that applicants may fail entire sections of the exam and receive a passing score," the memo said in summarizing Nichols' remarks.
"As a result, a substantial portion of applicants entering the academy are weak, obese, and out of shape. Many cannot do a single pushup."
Nichols also said there was a lack of communication between supervisors and his office, "in that they didn't even know what I was doing." He said they were "unresponsive to new ideas and to different types of policing in different areas of the city."
He said the department had lowered its hiring standards, that administrators were no longer allowed to fire officers with poor performances, and that female recruits were often accepted over white males even if they received lower grades on some tests.