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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

David Hepburn

Guarding the Thin Blue Line Between the Police and Its Chief

May 02, 1999|Matt Lait | Matt Lait covers the Los Angeles Police Department for The Times

There is Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, and then there is Lt. David A. Hepburn--the anti-Parks.

As president of the police-officers union since January 1997, Hepburn has found himself in a pitched battle with the chief on matters of discipline, benefits and public safety. While far less known than the chief, Hepburn, a 26-year veteran of the force, is still an influential figure in city-government circles. For many, he is a barometer of the rank and file's mood.

Over the course of two interviews in the union's downtown headquarters, Hepburn, 48, warned that departmental morale was at an all-time low, worse than after the 1992 riots. He said a climate of fear permeates the department under Parks, who has fired a record number of officers. While the public embraces Parks' tough stand on discipline, union members complain the chief has overzealously enforced it.

In recent months the relationship between the chief and union has become so bad they have stopped talking to each other. The union's monthly newspaper routinely slams Parks for being a dictator. In one recent edition, the paper likened the chief to Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini. In this sort of bare-knuckle atmosphere, Hepburn is considered a moderate. Yet, his views hardly fit the civic mainstream: He says the Christopher Commission report, which proposed LAPD reforms in the wake of the 1991 Rodney G. King beating, was a sham. He also contends that accounts of the LAPD's notorious antifemale organization, Men Against Women, which came to light during a department investigation into former Det. Mark E. Fuhrman, were largely fictional.

Hepburn, a native Californian, graduated from Cal State L.A. with a business degree. Married, with two adult children, Hepburn, like many LAPD officers, is an outdoor enthusiast and enjoys surfing, skiing and boating.

Hepburn's views may be deemed marginal by some, but he is the elected voice for some 9,500 officers in the Los Angeles Police Protective League. Union leaders, like Hepburn, learned long ago the power their organization's endorsement has on politicians, clamoring to be seen as law-and-order candidates. Recently, some City Hall leaders have started lending a sympathetic ear to union complaints about the department's plummeting morale and widening rift with the chief. The public should be concerned, too, Hepburn says, because angry cops may render poor police service.

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Question: Police unions and police chiefs have traditionally been at odds. What makes this situation different?

Answer: Unlike previous chiefs, this one has a remarkable lack of compassion and empathy for the rank and file.

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Q: The chief has called the union directors "tired old men" who are "out of touch" with their membership. He has criticized the union for not reflecting the diversity of the rank and file. How do you respond?

A: We are elected by our membership, and the membership elects whoever they see fit to elect. There has been diversity on the board. We've had a woman on the board and quite a few Hispanic members on our board over the years . . . so we have been diverse. But the main thing to keep in mind is that the interests of officers, regardless of their background, are the same. . . . The pay raise is the same for everybody.

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Q: Does morale affect public safety?

A: Cops are going to do the job that they're paid to do, regardless. But certainly, I don't think it's in the public's interest to have cops who are unhappy coming to work, who are more likely to have poorer attitudes toward the public because they feel the organization they work for is treating them poorly.

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Q: The police contract expires next year, and negotiations with the city will start soon on a new agreement. In the past the union has sanctioned a "blue flu," or sickout, during negotiations. In a recent newsletter you said the coming Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles could be used as "leverage." What do you have in mind?

A: I'm optimistic that we'll be able to negotiate a new contract without taking any job action, but I'm not going to eliminate any options that the union might need to use as leverage. . . . We will press at the bargaining table to make sure we have an agreement before [the convention] takes place, and I'm sure that the City Council will want to feel comfortable that that agreement is signed before that event takes place, which is going to have the attention of the entire country and most of the world on Los Angeles during that period.

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Q: The chief has fired a record number of officers. Do you quarrel with the reasons these officers were terminated?

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