We'd played phone tag, and I almost gave up. But longtime cop Dave Barr was eager to talk. Very eager.
Surprising, considering that the subject was police ethics. And what better timing than in the wake of the LAPD's Rampart Division scandal--a cesspool of evidence-planting, perjury, cover-ups and unprovoked aggression against citizens that has led to dozens of verdicts being overturned and the threat of multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
Usually when you challenge cops on things like that, you get your hat handed to you.
The 56-year-old Barr is a different breed of cat.
How do things get that far out of whack? Can citizens trust police? Forget the code of silence from cops; how about a code of outrage?
A cop for 32 years before becoming director of the police recruit training center on the Golden West College campus, Barr says those are exactly the questions to be asked.
"It kills us," he says of the Rampart scandal. "I'm convinced that in order for local police to be effective, they've got to have public trust. Some people, we'll never get it from--that's the nature of the beast--but for the vast majority, we've got to have them trust us."
Most citizens know that the majority of cops retire after honorable careers. But Barr says that shouldn't obscure the failings of those who dishonor the badge.
The reason, he says, is the immense power police have. "Many recruits don't understand where their authority comes from," Barr says. "So we have to take them back to the Constitution. When you have someone with the power we have--the greatest single power a society can give away--they give to police."
I ask Barr how the proverbial "bad apples" end up that way.
"Peer pressure does it. Power does it. There's a sense that with a heavy badge, you can get away with anything. If you have a propensity to be a bully as a kid or young adult, and now you've got a badge, guess what you're going to be?"
Accordingly, Golden West recruits are told on the first day that they must adhere to a higher standard of conduct than the average citizen. And they are told that lack of character can get them drummed out faster than any other shortcoming.
Excuses Are a Cop-Out
Before moving to Golden West three years ago, Barr's police career culminated as La Palma police chief. He hasn't worked the street since 1979 but says he understands how frustrating (and dangerous) police work can be.
Deep down in our souls, many of us may not mind if police cut corners to nab the bad guys. For that reason, many citizens cut police slack when they break the rules.
That has become an excuse, Barr says, for bad behavior. A cop-out, if you will.
"Here's what cops look at," he says. "They see a system that doesn't care if the guy is guilty or not guilty--it's whether the game was played correctly. Guilt or innocence, the suffering of the victim--that isn't the issue. But cops do see those things as the issue."
The result, he says, is that police overstep their bounds and become judge and jury.
But that's human nature, isn't it? "Police subscribe to and belong to a system," Barr says. "We have to accept that system."
But isn't that a lot to ask? "It is, but dammit, if they're part of the system, they must," Barr says.
Many cops would scoff at such thoughts, but Barr says it's important to know that many cops would not. "American police have come to hate the ACLU," he says. "I'm on the other end. I think the ACLU is a good thing."
That's probably too much for Barr's fellow cops to digest. One step at a time.
Building a better mousetrap requires many parts, but Barr says it all starts with recruitment and ends with a police organization with unflinching integrity.
He laments that of the 744 training hours facing recruits, four are devoted to ethics.
Golden West is expanding that a bit with a pilot program that emphasizes character traits and he makes a key distinction between ethics and character. "Ethics are the rules," he says. "Character is what makes you adhere to the rules when nobody is looking."
With better hirings, better training and strong leadership, Barr says, police can regain their credibility.
For now, most of us would settle for police condemnation of improper behavior. Until last week, when the LAPD police union spoke out, I hadn't seen any denunciation of the burgeoning scandal from the rank-and-file.
Barr sighs and says that's part of the police culture that has to change.
"What you find is that cops get very defensive," he says. "As soon as this happened in L.A., they'll start to defend it instead of saying, 'No, that behavior is absolutely wrong and there is no excuse for it.' Yeah, you want to put the bad guys away, but you do it the right way."
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org