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LAPD Rejection Over Racial Joke Raises Questions

February 04, 1996|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Randy Mehringer grew up the son of a career cop and couldn't wait to button up the blue himself.

He took entrance exams at the Los Angeles Police Department before graduating from the University of Arizona, and later became a reserve officer--finishing third in his Academy class--to boost his chances of hiring on. So far, the 27-year-old west San Fernando Valley resident has logged more than 2,000 hours at Rampart Division, earning him praise in the police union's newsletter and a guest spot on the television show "Cops."

Now Mehringer's childhood dreams have been busted, apparently because he repeated a not-so-funny joke about last fall's "Million Man March" to some friends at the gym. He admitted the incident when asked about racial jokes by an LAPD interviewer, and last month a rejection letter arrived saying that Mehringer had failed to meet department standards of "respect for others" because of his "racially derogatory comments." Mehringer said the joke was the only racially related behavior he mentioned.

"There seems to be a problem somewhere if the criteria for selecting a police officer is never having told a joke about a protected class," said Bud Mehringer, a 28-year LAPD veteran and Randy's father. "We'd better find another labor pool. We'd better go to Venus or Mars, because you're not going to find them on this planet.

"Are we looking for perfect human beings? Or are we looking for good officers?" Bud Mehringer added. "There has to be a balance here."

*

With the unprecedented expansion of the LAPD in full swing, and sensitivity about racism on the force heightened by the O. J. Simpson double-murder trial, City Hall leaders and bureaucrats are adamant that weeding out people with prejudice is a key component of police recruiting. But Mehringer's case--and a handful of similar stories in which jokes, years-old financial woes or teenage drug experimentation resulted in rejection letters--have politicians wondering whether they have gone too far.

Mehringer has appealed his rejection, and plans to testify about his situation at a special meeting of the City Council Personnel Committee on Monday morning in which members will consider hiring a panel of psychological experts to review the police recruitment process. The committee seized on the issue after hearing complaints from rebuffed candidates and reviewing the department's high rejection rate.

LAPD and Personnel Department officials would not estimate how many candidates are disqualified in connection with telling racial jokes, but 59% of the candidates who make it to the background investigation stage are disqualified, many under the categories of "mature judgment" or "respect for others," code words for potential bias. Currently, city officials must recruit 1,200 to 1,500 candidates to fill each 80-member Police Academy class, a staggering ratio that leaves some wondering if quality people are being turned away.

"We need to be very careful that we're not going overboard . . . that it doesn't turn into a witch hunt," said Councilwoman Laura Chick, who is a member of the Public Safety and Personnel committees. "It's part of our national culture that these kinds of jokes are told. Until in a much bigger way we take on the task of raising the public's consciousness that this is not OK, I'm not sure that it's an effective way to screen out for LAPD."

But this is a tricky issue, particularly in light of the department's recent history, including the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King, the riots that followed the first jury verdict in that case, and last fall's nationwide airing of racist comments by now-retired LAPD Det. Mark Fuhrman.

"All of us want to make darn sure that we don't have Mark Fuhrman again," said Councilman Mike Feuer, Chick's colleague on the Public Safety panel. "If I had to err on one side or the other, I would err on the side of assuring that we don't have people with bigoted views in the Police Department. . . . With all the people out there, why would you take a chance on [a person who told racial jokes]?"

Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, an African American who is a member of the Public Safety Committee, agreed, noting that "one of the most insidious forms of racism is communicated through humor."

At a Personnel Committee meeting last week, however, Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg wondered whether the LAPD might be setting an impossible standard, and in an interview Friday, Police Protective League President Cliff Ruff agreed.

"That's McCarthyism at its ultimate. We're in the era of being politically correct," Ruff said. "There has to be some legitimate quality control as to who may harbor bias and prejudice as opposed to who may have heard or told a joke."

Indeed, even Mayor Richard Riordan has been caught making questionable quips.

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