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Plan for Senior Lead Officers Raises Hopes

October 07, 2000|ROBERTO J. MANZANO and RICHARD FAUSSET | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Community leaders and senior lead police officers expressed cautious optimism Friday about the decision by the mayor and police chief to support restoring the officers' role as community liaisons.

The decision requires Los Angeles Police Commission approval to take effect, and is scheduled to be considered by the panel Tuesday.

"We're a little skeptical right now. We have to wait and see what the chief actually has to say," said Ken Knox, who has been a senior lead officer at the LAPD's West Valley Division for eight years. "I don't know why it's all changed so suddenly. . . . It'll be a very positive move because of the Rampart scandal. There's no trust in the department."

Knox said he received 25 calls in support of the decision, announced Thursday by LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks and Mayor Richard Riordan. He received no calls opposing the decision.

Many residents felt betrayed after Parks announced last year he was reassigning the lead officers to patrol duty, Knox said.

"[The redeployment] should have never been done in the first place," said Virginia Estrada, a Reseda resident who belongs to the West Valley Community Police Advisory Board. "If [officials] had listened to the people initially, we probably wouldn't be in the mess we're headed for right now."

Estrada said attendance at Neighborhood Watch meetings had plummeted from "hundreds to about 20" since the reassignments because residents didn't think they could make a difference. "Community policing has taken such a huge hit. People no longer trust the chief," she said.

Valley Village activist Page Miller, co-chairwoman of the organization Save Our Senior Leads, hailed the impending return to the old system.

"The lead officers were the people you could go to," she said. "You had continuity with that same officer; you had trust, and they were accountable directly to us."

Since Parks reassigned the lead officers, Hollywood Hills resident and Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Assn. President George Abrahams has complained to the Police Commission.

Under the original system, Abrahams argued, neighborhoods benefited because senior lead officers served as the Police Department's "middle management."

"And that is missing from the LAPD," he said. "The middle-management position is underappreciated, I believe, by the chief of police."

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With the original system, Abrahams added, the lead officer in his neighborhood was anything but a desk jockey.

"The bias is that somehow if you're administrators, you're not enforcing the law," he said. "But if we had a problem, [the lead officer] wouldn't say, 'I'll put a guy on it.' He'd go to the problem himself and get things done."

Knox said West Valley senior leads now get about 35 calls a day from people complaining about vagrants, prostitutes and drunks and various quality-of-life issues. But the lead officers are too busy handling radio calls and training probationary officers to get to all the complaints, he said.

Capt. Gary S. Williams of Pacific Division--which covers Venice and surrounding neighborhoods--defended Parks' motives for reassigning lead officers to routine patrol duties in 1999.

Under the original system, he said, the chief and many captains were concerned that lead officers in some divisions were not spending enough time in the neighborhoods.

"They were in offices, doing their business, and by themselves--not with young officers," Williams said. "Nobody knew what they were doing, and nobody understood what they were doing."

Williams said that bringing back the old senior lead officer program will present a challenge because it will mean fewer officers will be assigned to radio calls. Officers will face the task of trying to win back people's confidence, Knox said.

Before the lead officers were redeployed, people on the street used to honk in support when they saw officers and offer praise, Knox said. "That doesn't happen now," he added. "[But] we could turn this whole thing around."

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Manzano is a Times staff writer; Fausset is a correspondent.

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