The mounting investigations of the Rampart corruption scandal hold out the hope that the officers involved in criminal wrongdoing will be prosecuted and that the departmental procedures fostering their misconduct will be identified and corrected. But that may not be enough. For, at bottom, the problems at the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division are cultural in nature, the result of an institutional mind-set first conceived in the 1950s and subsequently modified to survive repeated attacks from outside the department. Unless this police culture is overthrown, future Rampart scandals are inevitable.
Fifty years ago, a police officer's job was relatively simple. He could, for the most part, search without a warrant, arrest at will, pursue his suspicions without supervisors second-guessing him and question suspects as long as their statements were not coerced. Except in the most complicated cases, the time required to make an arrest and file the relevant reports were measured in minutes.
In the 1960s and '70s, a series of judicial and legislative actions immeasurably complicated the cop's job. Decisions by the California and U.S. Supreme Courts placed ever-increasing limitations on his authority to gather evidence, make arrests and question suspects. At the same time, the state of California preempted most of the criminal provisions of municipal codes that had enabled him to solve most problems on his beat.
Each new restraint imposed on an officer's conduct, taken alone, was insignificant. But their cumulative effect was far-reaching. For example, in the 1980s, a single narcotics-related arrest involving physical evidence required 19 separate reports and just about guaranteed that the arresting officer would spend an entire shift plus overtime in the station house.
Throughout, LAPD management expected field officers to be ever-more productive, specifically, to be "proactive" against crime, a concept developed under William H. Parker, appointed chief in 1950. Accordingly, cops were supposed to aggressively seek out suspicious activity, pursue inquiries into such activities vigorously and let the results of police investigations justify officers' actions. The statistics were stunning. During the 1950s, L.A. cops made more arrests in a month than their eastern big-city counterparts did in an entire year.
In subsequent decades, however, officers were increasingly caught in the double bind of management expectations and the realities of the new, more difficult world of policing. Officers began to view the criminal-justice system as a hindrance to their best efforts to protect society from criminals. LAPD management, from Parker to the present day, fueled their frustration by, on the one hand, continuing to demand high productivity and, on the other, railing against soft-on-crime judges, inept prosecutors and fuzzy-minded liberal politicians.
The net effect was to foster an institutional paranoia that became part of police culture. If the whole system was arrayed against them, cops would have to conduct their crusade against crime alone. If all outsiders were intent on undermining its effectiveness, the police department would have to close itself off from those outside influences. The criminal element was dehumanized.
This culture shaped the attitudes of the working cop on the street. To protect the public effectively, an officer needed to skate as close as possible to the edge of the law created by new court decisions. One need not lie or fabricate evidence. That was far too crude. Rather, to avoid confusion, some facts, sometimes, needed to be emphasized, others minimized, if not omitted. Although subtle manipulations of fact, they can spell the difference between a suspect's conviction or freedom. They are also the first step down a slippery slope that can and has resulted in the kind of officer misconduct alleged in the Rampart scandal. That slope is greased when department management tolerates--and sometimes condones--such shadings of the law.
Police Chief Bernard C. Parks recently proposed a five-year plan to prevent another Rampart. His five-year plan, based on his department's Board of Inquiry investigation of the scandal, asks for more supervisors in the field, stronger internal investigative capabilities and increased administrative-control mechanisms. Can Parks' ambitious proposals change this culture? Let's consider a couple.
* The chief would expand existing field supervision by deploying more supervisors and stripping them of the responsibility to investigate serious complaints against officers. Instead, complaints would be handled by a beefed-up Internal Affairs, thus freeing up the line supervisors to police the cops on the street.