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How the Dirty Work Got Done : It's no good complaining about brutality, this history of the LAPD suggests--we get the police force we ask for : TO PROTECT AND TO SERVE: The LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams, By Joe Domanick (Pocket Books: $23; 497 pp.)

December 11, 1994|Alex Raksin | Raksin is deputy book editor

"We're on the Freeway, upon the Highway, that's the place to be.

We're on the Right Way, there is no Left Way

Let's go, the road is straight and clear.

There are no bars ahead, there are no signs of red

All the land is for you and me."

Lumbering though it may be, this little ditty from one of the lavish stage shows the Los Angeles Police Department held to raise money in the 1950s perfectly captures the competing desires that have pulled at the heart of Los Angeles.

On the one hand, it glamorizes the free city ("there are no signs of red"), harking back to our origin as the kind of Old Western town made legendary by such films as "High Noon" and "Unforgiven"--a place where everyone, from merchants to cowboys, gunmen to gamblers, could stake their own claim to the Great Frontier. On the other hand, the song also reflects the extraordinary social conformity that L.A. was striving to attain in the '50s ("there are," it also implied, "no signs of Reds ").

Liberty and conformity, the Free Way and the Right Way: With ideals as conflicting as these, is it any wonder that this city exploded in 1992?

"To Protect and to Serve," Joe Domanick's vividly reported history of the LAPD since its formal inception in 1877, shows how the department has often exacerbated these conflicts. But Domanick, a journalist whose 1990 L.A. Weekly piece on the LAPD won an L.A. Press Club award, refuses to scapegoat the police for their failure to resolve in the streets conflicts that really lie at the heart of our civic culture.

Many of us, for instance, have hungered for the kind of intimate social community where people know their neighbors and dare to converse with strangers. But such a community necessarily requires a measure of conformity. Conservative ideologue Charles Murray, for instance, has recently touted his vision of Utopian American living--a town where Americans care about, but also to some extent control, each other. For better or for worse, such a closely knit community is the kind that the first modern police force, London's "bobbies," was designed to serve.

As attorney Andrew Peyton Thomas shows in his new book "Crime and the Sacking of America" (Brassey's: $25; 351 pp.), the bobbies practiced in the late 19th Century something traditionally regarded as an innovation of the late 20th Century: community policing. Wearing blue to distinguish their mission from the offensive one of Britain's red-coated regular army, the bobbies, Thomas writes, aimed to "ferret out crime before it actually occurred, mainly through getting to know members of the community and encouraging their cooperation." The bobbies successfully kept crime under control, but at the price of imposing sometimes rigid social mores on the people they served.

Most Angelenos, in contrast, historically have clung tenaciously to their Old Western roots, preferring another, more libertarian vision of community: one in which we remain virtually free from the influence of others. This vision--which leads the police to function more as soldiers than social workers--was championed most prominently by former LAPD chief Daryl Gates.

Gates showcased his paramilitary strategies in a host of media events: Riding shotgun on an armored tank, for instance, he helped raze the walls of a suspected crack house with a 14-foot-long battering ram; appearing on CBS News, he effusively praised Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode's "inspired and heroic" decision to bomb the headquarters of a black radical organization called MOVE (the first aerial bombing in the history of mainland America, the assault killed 11 people and set several blocks of housing ablaze).

The harsher Gates' rhetoric became, it seemed, the higher his public approval ratings soared: after a decade of touting programs with names like SWAT, CRASH and Operation Hammer and recommending to the U.S. Senate that "casual drug users ought to be taken out and shot," for example, Gates received a 74% approval rating in a 1988 Los Angeles Times Poll.

As novelist and former LAPD sergeant Joseph Wambaugh told Times media critic David Shaw shortly before the riots of 1992, Angelenos, who in 1981 and 1985 had voted down ballot initiatives to improve the department's extremely low officer-resident ratios, had implicitly condoned Gates' "lean and mean" approach to policing. In exchange for the "unbelievable bargain" of policing the city effectively with so few men, Wambaugh said, leaders and voters in Los Angeles have "sort of given these people . . . a certain amount of latitude . . . (to be) very aggressive, paramilitary . . . stopping crime before it happens." People want that job done, "and they don't want to hear about the dirty side of it. This is the deal the city made and now the city's crying about it."

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