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Dreams of LAPD Class Become Tarnished : Police: The academy's graduates in 1965 had to rebuild the department's image after the Watts riots. Now, after the Rodney King beating, 'a lot of the good we did' is gone, a member of that group says.

January 21, 1992|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The day held such great promise.

One hundred Los Angeles Police Academy cadets lined up in formation, each in full-dress uniform. At the podium stood Chief William Parker, vowing to overcome the stigma of racism and brutality and return the Los Angeles Police Department to its former glory.

This was graduation day for the Class of 1965--the first academy class to don the Los Angeles police uniform since the Watts riots.

"It was probably one of the proudest moments of my life," said Lt. Eddie Brown, a tall, skinny ex-Marine who served as the academy class president. "It was the highlight of my whole life. . . . There was so much enthusiasm."

But for Brown and his classmates, those memories are blended now with the painful vision of the Rodney G. King video, replayed almost endlessly over the last year on their television sets.

"I thought: 'Boom! It's all coming back,' " Brown recalled. "This whole thing was just like when we came on the department. A lot of the good we did was gone."

After Watts, the department had largely succeeded in rebuilding its reputation as one of the nation's most efficient and professional law enforcement agencies. But some of the changes, it turned out, were on the surface.

The fallout from the King beating once again tarnished the department's image. It also undid much of the good these 100 classmates had hoped to accomplish on the day Parker challenged them to reclaim the heritage of the Los Angeles Police Department--the same challenge given to recruits in the aftermath of the King beating.

Much has happened in the years between the Watts riot and the Rodney King incident. Today, drugs, murders and gang warfare rage on in unprecedented numbers. The Police Department, too, has changed, with more women and minorities on the force. The job of policing is a much more complex task. But in the minds of these 100 officers, the comparisons between the public outcry over Watts and the Rodney King beating are inescapable.

During the summer riots of 1965, television screens lit with black-and-white images of Los Angeles police officers clubbing black residents in an effort to regain order. Some black leaders rose in anger, decrying racism and police brutality. A special McCone Commission--headed by John A. McCone, former CIA director--was convened to review the Police Department's practices and policies.

This year, the television images of four white police officers standing over the black motorist with batons and boots and an electric stun gun shocked the nation into a new examination of police abuse. Angry community leaders and irate citizens filled Parker Center--many of them the sons and daughters of those who had protested brutality in Watts. A special Christopher Commission--headed by a former U. S. deputy secretary of state--was created and it found that police brutality and racism not only existed but were condoned within the Los Angeles Police Department.

In most ways, the Class of '65 was a typical group of police recruits. But its graduates made their careers during an unsettling period for the Police Department.

Of the 100 class members, at least two rose high enough to be considered possible applicants for the job of retiring Police Chief Daryl F. Gates. Another, Robert Price, would win the department's prestigious Medal of Valor award, cited for bravery when he jumped from a helicopter in 1980 to save a woman caught in floodwaters.

Others would find the pressures of police work too much to bear, and they would retire with stress-related pensions.

Many graduates of the Class of '65--some now gray or balding or pot-bellied--now wonder what impact, if any, they had on public confidence in the Los Angeles Police Department. Were their careers worthwhile? Did they make a difference? These are a few of their stories:

It is something of a wonder that Capt. Noel Cunningham entered law enforcement in the first place.

A black man married to a white woman, Cunningham remembers a night in 1965, before he entered the Police Academy, when a white detective from the Wilshire district came to their home, ostensibly to investigate a complaint that his wife had been assaulted and robbed.

"The detective suggested that my wife was a prostitute and that I was probably a pimp," Cunningham said. "That was racism. That was disrespect. And I knew right then that nothing was going to come of the case so I asked him to leave my home."

Equally jarring for the young Cunningham were the nightly news tapes from the Watts rebellion. He heard Chief Parker "condescendingly" refer to blacks as \o7 "nigras.\f7 " He heard the chief contend that the riots were the work of a small minority, whom he called "monkeys in a zoo."

But Cunningham--one of only a half-dozen black recruits in that academy class--joined up primarily for economic reasons. He was a new father, and the job of a police officer paid twice what he was making as a hospital technician.

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