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Police Resistance to Gutting DARE Program Angers Panel

Dispute: Commission urges shifting officers in the school anti-drug effort to patrol.

April 30, 2002|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles Police Commission members didn't shrink at ousting a powerful and popular police chief. But they seem to have found a more formidable adversary in DARE, the LAPD's longtime drug-abuse education program.

Commissioners first talked about gutting DARE's staff two months ago to free up more officers for the LAPD's depleted narcotics and gang units.

The deliberations have unfolded quietly in recent months in the shadow of the higher-profile controversy over the commission's rejection of a second five-year-term for Chief Bernard C. Parks.

Parks is now out, but DARE remains standing. Despite commissioners' repeated requests, LAPD officials have yet to provide them with the "creative solutions" they had requested so that most DARE officers might be temporarily shifted to other duties and the program replaced by something else.

In fact, as the debate stretches into its third month, LAPD brass appears to be more interested in arguing DARE's merits and protecting it from further cuts than in responding to the commission's requests.

At the commission's most recent meeting on DARE, little progress was made, and the discussion was continued into next week.

Rather than working toward resolution, police officials and commissioners seemed to argue past each other.

Pressed to come up with a replacement for DARE, Deputy Chief J.I. Davis dug in his heels. "DARE has a very positive role," he told commissioners calmly.

On the commissioners' side, though, patience was wearing thin. "Didn't we ask for some creative solutions?" Commissioner Silvia Saucedo asked. "Wasn't that due to us today?"

She didn't get an answer from the assembled LAPD officials. But commission President Rick Caruso offered one instead. "Yeah," he grumbled, "it was. And we got a new memo that just says, 'No.'"

At issue for the Police Commission is a more far-reaching question than the future of school-based anti-drug officers: how to persuade LAPD officials to do what civilian overseers want.

For years, critics have griped that the LAPD's paramilitary culture has resisted civilian oversight to the detriment of civil rights, and that the Police Commission--civilians appointed by the mayor to oversee the department--has never quite managed to assert sufficient control.

Now, the police commissioners, most of them appointed last year by Mayor James K. Hahn, want to establish their authority as managers in ways they believe eluded their predecessors. And they are learning just how difficult that can be.

"I think it's a cultural thing," Caruso said. "There is a history of giving an answer that is not really an answer and hoping it just goes away."

Commissioners began considering ways to reduce or eliminate DARE in February in response to concerns that narcotics crime-fighting units, in particular, had been cut excessively and that officers needed to be transferred from elsewhere to help rebuild them.

They were responding in part to the protests of a group of Boyle Heights residents, who in arguing passionately for more narcotics officers, cited rising gang violence.

The department's overall personnel crisis results from a shortage of police recruits that has most profoundly affected specialized units. Strapped for officers, the department has been shifting people from these units back to patrol to ensure sufficient numbers to answer emergency calls.

The DARE program has been among those cut, but it has not lost as many positions as narcotics.

DARE is now allotted 119 officers on paper but, in reality, it is functioning with 71. Hahn's proposed city budget for next year would in essence make the vacancies permanent, capping it at 74 officers.

But the commission wants the number of sworn officers cut to about six, with civilians or retired officers taking up the slack.

DARE deploys uniformed police officers to schools to educate children on the perils of drug use. The program was created by the LAPD in 1983 and has since spread worldwide. Although DARE's effectiveness has been questioned by some experts, its rapid expansion in Los Angeles and elsewhere testifies to its popularity.

Supporters say that, besides discouraging drug use, DARE improves school safety by bringing officers to campuses and is also a valuable officer recruitment tool. Moreover, LAPD officials argue that the program represents one of the department's few efforts that focuses on crime prevention, and that it would be short-sighted to gut it to meet short-term needs.

The program also is a point of pride for the LAPD.

"If you look at the achievements of LAPD in the last 50 years, the two things that have been most innovative are SWAT and DARE," said Charlie Parsons, executive director of DARE America, the nonprofit corporation that sponsors the program. "To consider dropping DARE is incredible."

Commission President Caruso counters that, in the face of rising gang violence, the department cannot afford to keep 71 officers in the drug education program.

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