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LAPD at Crossroads of Old, New : Transition: Ranks torn between aggressive past, diplomatic present.

BEHIND THE BADGE. Three Months With the LAPD. First in a Series

July 30, 1995|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — A battle is raging for the soul of the Los Angeles Police Department.

To understand the forces tearing at the LAPD, just listen to Richard Eide, a tall, tough-talking captain who stands astride two contradictory world views.

One minute the man in charge of patrol operations in the Van Nuys Division complains about do-gooders trying to defang his department. "You can't beat all your warriors into social workers," he grumbles as his men stand in stoic ranks taking a vulgar verbal bashing from youths demonstrating against Proposition 187.

The next, he warns that while cops on the beat will tell you the reason they joined was to help old ladies across the street, they're fudging the truth. In fact, he says with the blunt candor of an ex-Air Force officer, many joined up to "drive fast, carry a gun and deploy on somebody."

His ambivalence about what a police officer should be says more about the LAPD than aberrations such as the Rodney G. King beating, the O.J. Simpson trial or even the controversy over Chief Willie L. Williams' travels. It describes the resentment and loss of confidence that afflicts a department that once set the standard for big city policing but is today the target of jokes and conspiracy theories.

Recognizing the need to let down its guard and show a human face in the wake of the blows it has received over the past four years, the LAPD allowed a Times reporter and photographer to spend three months in the Van Nuys Division. Granted unprecedented access to the closed world of behind-the-scenes policing, the journalists attended roll call, rode unsupervised with cops on the beat, went inside the yellow tape at homicide scenes, and sat in on high-level strategy sessions where Eide struggled to balance crime fighting with new political realities.

What emerged was a street-level view of a department in wrenching transition, still tethered to its past, uncertain of its future and struggling against itself to be reborn.

It is a department that understands it can no longer tell the public what kind of policing it needs but is still wary of asking its officers to be diplomats as much as centurions.

Every day, tensions between the old and the new are exposed on the streets and in the struggles of the men and women who people and run the world-famous LAPD.

Some can't or won't cope--they leave for easier lives at small suburban departments where they get time for lunch and where the residents wave at them with all five fingers, not just one. Some stay and rail against a department that insists on diversity in the ranks and better treatment of crime-plagued neighborhoods. Some adapt, blending tough old habits with newer sensitivities their bosses and the times demand.

Some simply endure, dealing in their own way with the horrors and challenges of homicides, child abuse, chicanery and petty street crime that are the officer's lot in life.

Once L.A.'s sleepy back yard, the population in Van Nuys has swelled to 294,000 with the increasing urbanization of the San Fernando Valley. The once-exclusively white community, where Don Drysdale perfected his fastball and future drag racer Don (The Snake) Prudhomme cruised Bob's Big Boy, has become as diverse as the rest of the city. About 38,000 immigrants arrived between 1987 and 1990, many of them settling into one of the rows of barracks-like apartment buildings near Van Nuys Boulevard.

Crime soared too. In 1963, there were no murders. In 1992, a record 42. Since 1975, there has been a 254% increase in robberies and a 354% increase in assaults.

By 1994, Van Nuys had become the city's third-busiest of 18 police divisions. Its Scientific Unit alone performs 140 analyses a week, 70% for cocaine. Police resources had not kept pace with the workload. The number of detectives was virtually unchanged in 20 years. As for patrol cops in black-and-whites, Eide complained so often that he was overmatched in the war on crime that colleagues warned him he was jeopardizing his career.

Located on a tree-lined plaza, the station house is a three-story block of bland gray cement where elevators break down regularly, the computers are so antiquated that they lost five months of domestic violence records when the hard drive crashed on a donated processor, and where the cops post slogans like, "Some people are alive only because it is against the law to kill them."

Because Van Nuys is also the Valley headquarters, inside its cramped offices all ranks rub elbows, from rookies up through Deputy Chief Martin Pomeroy.

But the two men with the greatest impact on day-to-day policing have been Cmdr. James McMurray, Eide's boss, a diffident, professorial man, and Eide, who is the reverse. The man in charge of patrol functions, Eide combines a Patton-like bluster--"I will cut your heart out," he thunders at his advisers one day to warn them of the penalty for violating one of his rules--with a Dale Carnegie penchant for posting slogans and essays reminding cops they really have a good job.

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