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Blame the Brass, not Cops on the Street, for Rampart's Mess

November 26, 2000|Joseph D. McNamara | Joseph D. McNamara, retired police chief of San Jose, is a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His forthcoming book is "Gangster Cops: The Hidden Cost of America's War on Drugs."

STANFORD — There is a difference between cop-bashing and constructive criticism. As San Jose police chief, I often criticized the macho military-style police culture of the Los Angeles Police Department while arguing instead for a community style of policing that got tough on crime by forming partnerships with neighborhood groups. Under that style, we were able to break up gangs and arrest many criminals who were ruining the quality of life for innocent people and their children.

Although I remain critical of the LAPD culture, my heart goes out to the overwhelming majority of its officers who do their jobs professionally. I wore the uniform of the New York City Police Department for the first half of my 35-year career and remember a number of times the embarrassment and anger I felt when citizens looked at me, wondering if I was as guilty as the criminal cops making headlines. It hurt all the more because, like other cops, I was risking my life on behalf of some of the very people calling me a criminal.

In Los Angeles, the blame for the results of an errant view of how to police a city in a free society falls more on past political and police leaders than it does on rank and file officers. It's easy for people to forget that we ask officers to do things from which citizens shrink. We ask them to put themselves in harm's way. To step between threatening, violent people and us. We ask the police to take care of the bloody assaults and gory accidents and other human tragedies that we do not wish to see.

But we expect cops to avoid cynicism. They must be able to switch in seconds from friendly public servants to shooting it out with armed robbers. Who could not be filled with awe watching the 1997 TV coverage of the courageous, outgunned LAPD officers rushing in and risking their lives against murderous bank robbers wearing body armor and armed with military weapons in North Hollywood?

Understandably, police suicides, mental breakdowns, divorces, and other indices of job stress greatly exceed those of many other occupations.

The LAPD has received unrelenting criticism since Rodney G. King. The department, once the proud symbol of reform and integrity for the nation, has been analyzed and criticized until its reputation has sunk to the level of the "Eastern" agencies it sneered at. Although it was never as pure as its "Dragnet" image, the LAPD was the early model for police reform in the U.S.

The theory was that by making the police independent, and removing the department from the influence of City Hall politics, an honest, professional force could be developed. The LAPD developed a self-image of a tough, corruption free, crime-fighting machine.

Poor performance during the Watts' riots in 1965 was the first visible sign of the costs incurred when police see themselves as an aloof, military-type force. It was a police force that L.A.-cop-turned-novelist Joseph Wambaugh would describe as "New Centurions," soldiers who preserved civilization by keeping the barbarians under control, as opposed to civil servants charged with protecting life and property.

The independence and tenure granted the police chief under the City Charter enabled the LAPD to avoid many of the reforms forced upon other U.S. police agencies by the civil rights movement. Out of his hearing during a police conference, one chief observed that Bernard C. Parks would have a good "honeymoon" period; former Chiefs Daryl F. Gates and Willie L. Williams were easy acts to follow. Actually, years of poor leadership had left the department with many problems.

To the dismay of LAPD cops, just about everyone has weighed in with solutions, including the mayor, the mayoral candidates, the City Council, some of the county Board of Supervisors, the police commission, the department's inspector general, the police union, a number of commissions, the ACLU and various community groups.

Most ominous of all, the U.S. Department of Justice, which is totally unaccountable to the local citizens or indeed to any citizens, has bludgeoned the city--under threat of a costly prolonged lawsuit--into signing a consent degree. The decree, drawn up by bureaucratic lawyers, who don't know the difference between a felony in progress to a prowler call, will not change the police culture, but will impose even more confusion and red tape.

This is the same Justice Department blamed for the Waco and Ruby Ridge debacles. Furthermore, the Justice Department's agencies--the FBI, the DEA and the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms--have no experience in local policing.

In Los Angeles, reform of the LAPD will require the cooling of passions and good faith cooperation among the players. It is especially important to involve the rank and file in the process.

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