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THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Just Under the Skin : Pushed by Change, Pulled by the Past : As the LAPD Pursues Community-Friendly Policing, a Paramilitary Tradition Dies Hard

October 10, 1995|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the hills that buffer the grounds of the Los Angeles Police Academy, the staccato of training range gunfire echoes as it always has, an enduring constant in an institution facing seismic change.

The academy is ground zero in the Police Department's ambitious plans to alter its own culture, the place where psychologists and reform-minded officers are trying to mass-produce a new police generation no longer reared on the paramilitary models of the past.

Recruits are no longer expected to run, double-time, between classes. Drill formations once dominated by young white men are now speckled with black, Latino, Asian and female faces.

Volatile issues of race and policing--the explosive mixture that has haunted the LAPD from the Rodney G. King beating to the role that former Detective Mark Fuhrman's racial attitudes played in the jurors' acquittal of O.J. Simpson--are being met head-on at the academy, rubbed raw in encounter groups and circumscribed in newly revised policy statements.

But even as the LAPD broadens its training and revamps its internal systems, it faces a quandary that American police departments have yet to master: How to recast a police culture long resistant to change--and how to jettison a deeply embedded subculture of white officers whose racial beliefs led the Christopher Commission to conclude in 1991 that the department had a "troubling problem" with internal bias, a problem mirrored in Fuhrman's unhampered career.

From the LAPD's training fields to its station houses, the effort to mold a new breed of police officer confronts the department's own living past--thousands of cops who learned their aggressive style of policing under chiefs William H. Parker and Daryl F. Gates and must now conform to the community-conscious methods of Chief Willie L. Williams.

In the academy and out on the streets, recruits are still being taught the realities of police work and the verities of police culture by officers steeped in the department's dated take-no-prisoners philosophy. Even in a reform era, veterans insist that their old proactive style--in which arrests were prized above all else to compensate for the department's low staffing levels--is still the essence of policing communities torn by gang warfare and narcotics strife.

"In my heart, I know the old hard-nosed, proactive way is the right way," said Sgt. Nick Titiriga, 39, an instructor at the academy and one of the LAPD's few heroes of the 1992 riots. "But that's not our way anymore."

In Los Angeles' minority communities, where proactive policing has always been viewed through racial filters, residents are not so certain that the old ways are gone. In South-Central, people have heard plenty of assurances about a new spirit of cooperation. Some of them show up at community police meetings and department-sponsored picnics at housing projects. But on their front porches and in their living rooms, people still complain wearily about the familiar routines of traffic stops, prone-outs and racially tinged code words.

"There may be small changes, but the tension's still here," said Michael Wiggins, 34, a dry-cleaning worker who lives in Rolling 60s gang territory and has had his share of tense encounters with LAPD officers.

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That hard-eyed view of police reform has been lent credence by a recent wave of violent and racially tinged police misconduct in Philadelphia, New York, Houston and other cities where police departments had institutionalized reform long before Los Angeles began its own changes. In Philadelphia, where Williams oversaw reform efforts before taking over the LAPD in 1992, a cell of white officers has been convicted of trumping up charges against scores of black residents, forcing a re-examination of thousands of old court cases. Some of those now-overturned cases happened on Williams' watch.

These cities had already applied the remedies that the LAPD is now using--hiring more minority officers, toughening regulations on police shootings and brutality, teaching sensitivity to minority concerns, muting old aggressive enforcement techniques with programs such as community policing.

"The problem with reform is that police departments enact some policies and assume everyone falls into line," said Councilman Michael Nutter, who represents the poor North Philadelphia neighborhood where six officers from the Police Department's 39th District routinely beat and planted evidence on career criminals and law-abiding residents. "But once the spotlight is off, the good old boys are out there playing the same old racist, violent games."

In Los Angeles, the enduring presence of the old guard does not necessarily doom the effort to transform the LAPD's culture, say public officials pushing for change. But they acknowledge that although the department's systems and rules can be quickly overhauled, getting to the hearts and minds of its veterans--and the rookies who learn from them--will take much longer, requiring the public's patience.

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