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COVER STORY : Questioning the Color of Authority : In Diverse Central Los Angeles, 79% of the Supervisors Running LAPD Stations Are Anglo


When then-Capt. Art Lopez supervised the Hollenbeck police station in the late 1980s, he was known for building bridges in the Eastside's predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Residents say the Spanish-speaking Lopez was a familiar face at schools, community meetings and social functions from Highland Park to Boyle Heights.

Because Lopez is Latino, he was viewed by community members as one of their own, residents say, and his presence assured people the 240 officers under his command were sensitive to their needs.

But he was--and still is--the exception.

In Central Los Angeles, the captains and lieutenants who run police stations bear little resemblance ethnically to the people they serve, according to data from the Los Angeles Police Department. Of the 80 captains and lieutenants at the nine stations that cover neighborhoods from the Eastside to Koreatown to South-Central, 63--or 79%--are Anglo. Eight are black, eight are Latino and one is Korean.

The area, in contrast, is one of the most diverse in the nation, with Latinos constituting 54% of Central Los Angeles' 1.4 million residents, blacks 28% and Asians 10%, according to the 1990 Census. Spanish is the main language spoken at home by 49% of the area's residents, the census showed, and another 9% speak an Asian language in their homes.

More minority captains and lieutenants would help build trust at a time when the department is beginning community-based policing, the cornerstone of proposed reforms to reach out to the public and restore confidence in the department, residents and experts say.

"When a white commanding officer takes charge in a minority neighborhood, most people feel they are not going to get justice," said Troy Smith, director of the Greater Watts Justice Center, a legal-aid organization.

But the prospect for change in the ranks of captains and lieutenants, which have remained more than 80% Anglo in the past decade, is not encouraging.

On the department's current list of leading candidates for promotion to captain--rankings based on a written exam and an interview--there is only one minority among the top 19. At the lieutenant level, the city projects that Anglos will receive about 77% of the 72 lieutenant promotions expected by June, 1994.

The Christopher Commission, in its sweeping report on the department after the March, 1991, beating of Rodney G. King, said many minority officers cited "white dominance of managerial positions . . . as one reason for the department's continued tolerance for racially motivated behavior." And a recent Times Poll found that 75% of the people in minority areas throughout the city think racism is common in the Police Department.

Minority lieutenants and captains would help "promote a different attitude (in the community). That's something (the) LAPD should recognize," said Suk Young Choe, a business consultant who has lived in Koreatown for 20 years.

An absence of minority supervisors, however, does not mean relations with the community cannot be good. In South Los Angeles, residents speak highly of Capt. Pat Froehle, an Anglo officer who has reached out to the Latino and African-American neighborhoods in the department's 77th Street Division. "Although it is desirable that you mirror the community, the most important thing is that you have a service heart," Froehle said.

Other factors, too, will be needed to make community-based policing work. Residents say they would like to see more police substations and patrols in their neighborhoods. And law enforcement experts say the department will have to change its paramilitary methods and work closer with residents to fight crime.

But as Lopez, who was promoted to commander and is now stationed in South Los Angeles, pointed out about minority supervisors: "You immediately build a bridge with the individuals in your community because of what you are."

In community-based policing, police and residents work together to devise the best ways to reduce crime. The idea is to give residents a greater voice and to develop a partnership based on trust and respect, which differs from traditional tactics in which officers deal with residents only after a crime is committed.

Experts say community-based policing requires a close relationship between police stations and their neighborhoods, which means the captains and lieutenants are key.

More than half the patrol officers in Central Los Angeles are minorities. But they do not have the authority to set the tone for their stations, determine priorities and hold other officers accountable for their actions, said Jack R. Greene, a Temple University criminal justice professor. Greene advised Police Chief Willie L. Williams on community policing when he was police commissioner in Philadelphia and will help with the program in Los Angeles next year under a $379,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice.

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