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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

New Face of LAPD Looks to Prove Itself

It's the first major roll-out for younger patrol officers, who wouldn't be anywhere else right now. Getting such duty is why they joined the department.

August 15, 2000|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the year 2000, the Los Angeles Police Department wears a new face.

It is Binnie Phan, an officer for just three years, who speaks three languages, has a degree from the University of California and wouldn't have missed this week at work. It is Manuel Melgoza, an officer for two years and a former high school football captain and student body president, who carried his own digital camera to record Monday's events. It is Sgt. Andy Mathes, an officer for eight years, who postponed his wedding to be available for duty during the Democratic National Convention. And it is John Melendez, an officer for three years who knows--because older officers keep telling him--that this is a week he'll never forget, no matter what happens.

At their roll call Monday morning, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks told these officers that the city is proud of them, that he is confident in them and that they should enjoy these "historic" days.

But this is also the group that protesters and some local politicians fear is primed to overreact in the face of taunting demonstrators.

Phan, Melgoza, Mathes and Melendez are confident, eager, maybe a tad anxious, about the events unfolding in the city. They say this is the sort of assignment that reminds them why they joined the Los Angeles Police Department--even as they block intersections for seemingly long, hot periods, skip lunch and form "skirmish lines" ahead of and behind protesters.

"How often do we get this?" said Phan, 25, as she put on her black ballistic helmet. "Other small departments will be watching us on television."

These officers, part of a group of 10 from the Central Division, resemble the bulk of the force. LAPD patrol officers, in fact, have an average of less than six years on the job. They weren't around for the 1992 riots or the 1987 visit by the pope, let alone the 1984 Olympics.

This is their test. Their chance to show that they will follow orders, make arrests when necessary and prove that the LAPD is up to the challenge.

The officers, who make up a "mobile field force," spent most of the day Monday either trailing demonstrators or moving quickly ahead of them to block streets.

At times, they were forced to run blocks, only to be left standing in empty intersections, batons at the ready. At times they were taunted; they stared straight ahead. At times, protesters got too close to their lines; the officers took a firm step forward, moving the crowd back. Protesters snapped their pictures. Lawyers for the demonstrators read their name tags and recorded them.

At one point, a protester shouted at Phan: "But you're a woman!"

Phan didn't bat an eye. She acknowledged later that being a woman in a department where just 12% of the officers are female can be a challenge.

"We have to do things as good as them [the men] or better," Phan said. "Never less."

The mobile field force officers missed lunch Monday but scored a couple of breaks in the shade, where they quickly ate energy or granola bars and downed cold water. At one point, a truck with two members of the Police Protective League pulled up to the group at 6th and Olive streets and passed out water and snacks.

"We just need to take it as it comes, said Melgoza, 25, who lives at home with his mother and four siblings. "We just learn to adjust, adjust and adjust."

Then there are the older officers in the group--just three of them veterans of 19 years or more. While they say they still enjoy their work, they are more apt to roll their eyes when plans change suddenly or when they are forced to run "double-time" in the baking heat.

"I was hoping it would be bigger," said Guadalupe Ruvalcaba, an officer for 19 years, referring to the crowd at the first demonstration Monday morning. "We want to see what they've got."

Ruvalcaba, who with his partner was among the first on the scene outside Staples Center after the Lakers won the championship and some in the crowd got unruly, said the department more than ever is a mix of young, fresh officers and those just waiting to retire.

"The old-timers are kicking back and just waiting for their 20 or 30 years" until retirement, Ruvalcaba said.

Just then, his sergeant called the group together. "I have good news and bad news," Mathes said.

The good news was that Mathes thought his squad was doing a great job. The bad news was there would be no more restroom breaks for at least a few hours.

No matter. The group wiped off their sweaty heads, sipped water, strapped on gas masks and regrouped for the next protest. "You know the hard part?" Melendez said. "The anticipation."

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