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Commentary

We Must Not Lose Faith in Our Police Officers

November 20, 2000|MITZI GRASSO | Mitzi Grasso is a director with the Los Angeles Police Protective League

The conviction of three Los Angeles police officers last week for conspiracy and other crimes has caused some to ask whether police officers can ever again have the same credibility as prosecution witnesses in criminal trials. If some jurors in Los Angeles County doubt the credibility of police personnel on the witness stand, that obviously is a serious problem. But we do not believe that this case marks a dramatic shift in the trustworthiness of Los Angeles police officers.

It is always sad, disappointing and, frankly, enraging when anyone who is supposed to exemplify honesty is found to be deceitful and corrupt. As former LAPD Police Chief Ed Davis once said, "Dishonesty corrupts the essential process by which trust is advanced."

Whether or not these three officers appeal their convictions, we have the unpleasant example of Rafael Perez to add to the small but sickening list of peace officers who, by their behavior, have besmirched the badge they once wore. They took an oath to protect and serve our communities. They violated that oath in ways that are unconscionable and disgusting. Criminals like Perez tarnish in the public mind the memory of their noblest colleagues who have fallen in the line of duty. Police officers, more than even the general public, are angry and disappointed over what Perez and others have done.

But police officers and the communities that they serve are not alone in occasionally being let down by their own. Prisons don't just contain a few ex-policemen. They house priests, doctors, military heroes, teachers and athletes--all of whom have chosen to betray the values of their professions. Such people enjoyed the greatest trust among people, and they squandered it.

As with other professions generally held in high esteem, a police officer is more than a public servant; he or she is a role model. Consequently, police officers are held to a higher standard of honesty, integrity, bravery and forthrightness, qualities that lie at the heart of the public's trust in law enforcement. For a police officer to lie undermines the very foundation of this trust.

But to question the future credibility of the department's many officers as prosecution witnesses is a mistake. It also ignores the fact that ordinary police officers were central to exposing the nefarious activities of Perez in the first place. On the rare occasions that police officers are tried and convicted for corruption or other offenses, honest police officers are often central to the prosecution's case. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of police officers and civilian support staff in the LAPD are honest, conscientious and dedicated.

Of course, we must do more to understand and identify what makes the best police officers. We must work harder to select officers according to criteria that reveal not only the positive qualities they need to do this very difficult job but also the weaknesses that can prove so damaging. We must provide the right incentives to attract the best officers and deter the unsuitable.

But we must not lose faith in the vast majority of officers who every day demonstrate their commitment to the community with their honesty, integrity, bravery and hard work.

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