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The Proving Ground

After Rodney King and Four Cops Made History in Lake View Terrace, the LAPD's Foothill Division Was Ordered to Reinvent Itself. Today, Change--and Inertia--Are Evident.

March 04, 2001|JOHN CORRIGAN | John Corrigan is an assistant city editor in The Times' Valley edition

It changed Los Angeles and forced a nation to again confront the issues of racism and police brutality. To African Americans, the videotaped images of police officers pummeling a black man was see-it-for-yourself proof of the street justice they had long complained about receiving at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department. For once, they weren't ignored.

With outrage extending all the way to the White House, Los Angeles first reeled, and then demanded reform. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates was pushed out. Mayor Tom Bradley decided against seeking reelection.

But the most lasting institutional effects of the Rodney King beating reverberated within the LAPD, and the shock waves hit hardest in the division where the beating took place: Foothill.

The department--as proud as the Marine Corps but marred by charges of brutality and racism--was told to heal itself. The medicine didn't go down easily, as much of the department closed ranks around the four officers criminally charged in the March 3, 1991, beating. At Foothill, the FBI dispatched scores of agents to interview officers about misconduct and racial bias. "It was pure hell around here," recalls William Caughey, a station detective. "It's a memory of an ugly time."

Capt. Kenneth Garner, the station's commander now, likens the situation to the LAPD's latest headache: "Foothill back then was Rampart today."

It was an unlikely place for the epicenter. Unlike 77th Street or Southeast, two of the city's most violent police precincts, Foothill was a place of fewer crimes and fewer allegations of racism. But almost overnight, Foothill became the proving ground for a new kind of LAPD--one with a little less swagger, and one that promised to work in partnership with the public it serves.

Ten years after the beating, the changes wrought by it are evident here: A division once dominated by white males, many of them military veterans, is now headed by an African American and has more women and minority group members throughout its ranks. People who go to the station to report a crime will find officers at the front desk who are both polite and efficient, and a cop who speaks Spanish is never far away. Residents and business owners have a community police advisory board, a formal means to help set the division's priorities.

Those measures may seem small to people accustomed to a friendly hometown police force, but for the LAPD--known best for its combat-ready SWAT teams, its "Blue Thunder" airships and its aggressive anti-gang units--the changes are significant.

And yet, some things haven't changed. Young black men in Foothill say police still stop and question them on the street when they've done nothing wrong. And no matter how much the community clamors for crackdowns on everyday ills such as graffiti and truancy, violent crime remains the division's priority. Today's cops say, "Please" and "Thank you," but they still carry guns and cruise the streets looking for trouble.


SHOULDERED ALONG THE MOUNTAINS OF THE NORTHEAST San Fernando Valley, the Foothill Division is a patchwork of distinct communities. There's Pacoima, with the toughest precincts in the division. The store signs along the boulevards are mostly in Spanish, but African Americans retain key civic leadership roles. A few miles north, up Osborne Street, is Lake View Terrace, where old wood-frame homes with chicken coops adjoin new stucco apartments and where King had his fateful match with the LAPD at the junction of Foothill Boulevard and Osborne. West from there is Sylmar, which retains a few semirural pockets despite steady development. To the east, across the 1920s vintage bridge filmed in "Chinatown," is Sunland-Tujunga, part middle-class suburb, eclectic mountain hideaway and rundown commercial strip dotted with biker hangouts. At the other end of the division is Mission Hills, straddling Sepulveda Boulevard with its thriving retail district and street prostitutes who linger near the motels like pilot fish.

It's in Mission Hills, in the community room of a large medical clinic, that the Foothill Division Community Police Advisory Board is meeting on a recent rainy night. Nearly 60 people have packed into the room, filling paper plates from a buffet loaded with chocolate chip cookies, celery, meatballs, cheese, crackers and other snacks. Seated at one of the lunchroom-style tables near the front are Efren and Sylvia Hernandez of Pacoima. Efren, known as "Shorty," is a retired auto worker renowned for fearlessly patrolling his neighborhood in his car as a kind of a mobile neighborhood watch. Also at the table is Betty Cooper, a white-haired African American woman wearing lavender-tinted glasses and an embroidered sweatshirt. And a table or two away is Joe Lozano, a retired carpenter for the studios, who lives in Mission Hills.

"We have a vested interest in our community," he says. "I've been in my house for almost 40 years."

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