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Globe-Trotting Chief Settles Down to Shake Up South Pasadena Police

Law enforcement: Since he took over, Michael Berkow has helped reform and modernize the scandal-ridden force. Many welcome the changes, but they have not been trouble-free.


As a globe-trotting police officer, Michael Berkow has rebuilt a police force in war-torn Somalia, worked to restore law and order to Haiti and overseen democratic elections in Jamaica.

For the last 10 months, Berkow, 43, has been exercising his passion for reform right here in South Pasadena, a small, affluent town just 15 minutes from downtown Los Angeles.

He took over as chief of the South Pasadena Police Department in July in the wake of a department sex scandal and a lingering FBI probe into charges that police officials covered up an officer's involvement in a hit-and-run accident.

Berkow expected to find a department in turmoil. But he was caught off guard by the multitude of problems with day-to-day operations.

The city's finest couldn't administer a breath test to determine if a motorist was drunk because their equipment was broken. Property was routinely lost in the evidence room. The department had never taken a citizen complaint because no system existed for them. When it rained, officers were soaked to the skin because their ponchos were defective. Morale was in the toilet.

"There were ethical issues and leadership issues, but there were also basic systems questions. Some things just didn't exist," Berkow said.

"The department clearly had some problems and we immediately went to work to fix those," he added. "It was just a matter of willpower."


It's clear from Berkow's track record that he's not afraid to shake things up. In his most recent job, as police chief of Coachella in Riverside County, he arrested a majority of the City Council and his boss, the city manager, on charges ranging from misuse of public funds to spousal abuse.

"He is a tough guy," said Coachella Police Chief Louis Fetherolf, who served under Berkow as deputy chief. "You either get on board or get off."

Berkow began in South Pasadena with training. Many of the town's 31 officers failed to meet state training requirements, so Berkow sent everyone to at least one seminar, on everything from high-speed chases to ethics.

In rapid succession he launched a unit to receive citizen complaints, handle training and conduct internal investigations; contracted with an outside fingerprint expert; obtained a new breath analyzer; ordered the evidence room to be cleaned up; and retired inactive reserves.

In March the new unit arrested a senior police dispatcher on charges of pocketing car impound fees after another officer reported his suspicions. The dispatcher pleaded guilty this month to grand theft by embezzlement. Berkow's sweeping changes have earned him favorable reviews throughout town. One resident said it's as if someone waved a magic wand over the department. Officers call the chief fair and honest, and seem grateful for the improvements he has made.

"The chief made this a better place to serve the community. It's nothing like it use to be," said Sgt. Bill Courtice, who compares his boss' energy level to that of the cartoon Tasmanian devil.

Berkow is an admitted workaholic who regularly logs 80 hours a week.

As a young cop in Rochester, N.Y., he worked the night beat while attending law school full time at Syracuse University. He spent a year working as a 1st Amendment lawyer and a year clerking for a federal judge before rejoining the Rochester Police Department.

During his 15 years in Rochester, Berkow led a task force that brought about the arrest and prosecution of the city's former police chief for corruption.

He joined the U.S. Justice Department in 1993, where for two years he was assigned to lead police training efforts in Haiti, Somalia and across Central and South America.

Although South Pasadena is his turf these days, he recently took off a week to oversee Jamaica's turbulent elections with former President Jimmy Carter.

Berkow said his goal is to change the entire culture of the South Pasadena department.

Toward that end, he sent ethics guidelines to all officers and established core values of community partnership, respect and integrity for the force.

Berkow said his tours of duty in countries with few other whites have made him more sensitive to what it feels like to be judged by the color of his skin. With that in mind, he has sent officers to cultural sensitivity training at the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles.

"This is now a diverse community," said Berkow, noting that a third of the city is of Asian descent and one-eighth is Latino.

It has not been all smooth sailing. Two lieutenants and four sergeants who were demoted to cut costs are suing the city. Sgt. Joseph Payne, demoted when the rank of lieutenant was eliminated, said it was a devastating blow. "The city was looking for someone to punish after the scandals," he said.


Payne was referring to two incidents that surfaced in 1996 and forced the retirement of Chief Thomas Mahoney.

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