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A Few--Only a Few--CRASH Cowboys Took an Outlaw Path

Like My Lai, Rampart will prove to be the whole iceberg, not the tip of the iceberg.

March 08, 2000|JOSEPH WAMBAUGH | Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD officer, is the author of 15 books, including "The Delta Star," which is set in the Rampart Division

Thirty-two years ago, there occurred in a Vietnamese village an incident so horrendous that it nearly brought an end to the war: a massacre of helpless civilians by a platoon of U.S. soldiers. Many investigations were launched, all proclaiming that My Lai was "the tip of the iceberg." Vietnamese civilians were invited to come forward with similar tales, and former G.I.s were prodded into offering any like stories or rumors or hearsay.

Yet after Lt. William Calley, the leader of the slaughter, was court-martialed and sentenced, the story lost its legs. Finally it died not with a bang but a whimper. There were no other massacres. My Lai was an aberration never seen again during all the years of that terrible war. Only Calley's platoon shed its discipline, its training, its humanity, by reverting to organized savagery. Why those few out of an army of hundreds of thousands turned barbaric has never been explained. By its very nature, an aberration cannot be explained.

Flash-forward to the current Rampart Division scandal. One wonders if Chief Bernard C. Parks ever thinks in terms of metaphor and history. If so, he should consider the fate of Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who was also dedicated, intelligent and experienced. Like Parks, he was a tall, handsome, recruitment poster leader perfectly designed for the camera. Yet while the camera loved him, the media did not, and Westmoreland paid a price for it. That general can be morphed into Chief Parks with little imagination and effort.

When super-competent Parks took over the LAPD from incompetent Chief Willie Williams, he was welcomed by his officers with all the goodwill in the world, but he has squandered most of it with an inflexible management style and a reluctance to share power. His "my way or the highway" rigidity has driven many qualified officers to other police departments, where there is a compressed work schedule or other morale enticement that Parks will not consider.

Worse yet, Parks' personality defects are becoming ever more apparent to the media covering the Rampart scandal. The chief can be abrupt and imperious, giving rise to an impression that he is covering up when the opposite more likely is true. This scandal was uncovered by the LAPD. It is being effectively, even ruthlessly, investigated by the LAPD, with the assistance of six FBI agents recently invited in to reassure a suspicious public.

I believe that the Rampart scandal will prove to be the LAPD's My Lai incident, confined to the outrageous conduct of a few bad cops out of a force of 9,000 good ones. But it may provoke Parks into a face-saving purge of scores of officers for minor, unrelated infractions that have nothing at all to do with the criminal activity described by rogue cop Rafael Perez. Nevertheless, many police families will suffer from the pay loss.

I believe that in the end the Rampart investigation will reveal that only a few CRASH unit cowboys donned the black hat, at first a law unto themselves and, finally, outlaws unto themselves. Those few will be charged with felonies, yet police critics will remain unsatisfied. LAPD morale will be further damaged, proactive street police work will be diminished, and more good cops will seek positions with other police departments.

Back when Parks was a rookie, the department had a chief with the personality tools and the media rapport that could defuse a Rampart scandal. Chief Tom Reddin was so respected and trusted by the media that he could have introduced proportionality to the affair even while conducting a vigorous internal inquiry. He could have used the press and television media to convey a message that the department would purge the corrupt few and that the people would continue being served by one of the finest police agencies in the world.

In fact, to this very day, Reddin is the only LAPD chief to truly understand and appreciate that there cannot be a first-rate police force if it operates in a suspicious media environment. He immediately would have pointed out that a few criminal cops do not remotely equate to systemic corruption, because systemic corruption cannot possibly exist unless the city government itself is corrupt, unless the chief himself is corrupt. A fish rots from the head.

For all his talent and integrity, Parks cannot seem to grasp the lessons taught by that Vietnam-era police chief. Yet it's easy for one to imagine Reddin, during the initial stages of a scandal, gathering every reporter in town, making readers and viewers believe him by saying something like: "This terrible event is not the tip of an iceberg. This is the iceberg. And I promise you we'll steer past it. With your help. Together."

Unlike all his successors, that chief trusted the media to be fair with the LAPD if he was open and fair with them.

In short, what is lacking now is that quality that has always defined a good and effective street cop: the ability to step back, sit down and . . . schmooze.

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