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Los Angeles

Chief Seen as Agent of Change

Politics: Rick Lopez steps into the political fray, accepting South Gate's top police job. Union officials allege city corruption tinged the selection process.

June 25, 2002|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In November, Maywood Police Chief Rick Lopez refused South Gate's top police job after running smack into the city's famously raucous politics.

Lopez said South Gate appeared to be "imploding" from political turmoil, and he accused some cops of being "renegades" and "out of control."

But on Monday Lopez returned to South Gate, and this time he took the job. The political climate, however, has only gotten hotter, and his appointment intensifies the struggle between two police unions and city leaders over control of the department.

It's a struggle that could also determine the future of the crisis-racked city, where police have emerged as strong supporters of political corruption probes and voter recall drives targeting several city officials.

Lopez's appointment follows a series of moves by South Gate officials that have shaken up the top brass and radically altered working conditions on the 98-member force.

One unusual measure calls for almost every officer, including detectives, to wear uniforms. Another move allows voters to decide whether Spanish-language proficiency should be a requirement to be chief.

City officials say such measures will enhance public safety. But the unions think officials are retaliating against the unions for their support of voter recall drives aimed at ousting city leaders.

Placing himself in the center of the battle is Lopez, who was sworn in at a morning ceremony at City Hall. He said his change of heart came after much reflection, and a sense of civic duty.

"The community is crying for leadership," said Lopez in a telephone interview, "and I have a proven track record of being an effective leader."

But the unions believe Lopez was hired in a corrupt selection process, and fear he will punish police officers who are outspoken opponents of city officials.

"The belief is, given the turmoil that is going on, no reputable chief of police would take on this endeavor," said Sgt. Frank "Pico" Rivera, treasurer of the South Gate Police Officers Assn.

They also claim Lopez, who does not have a college degree, is not qualified. Lopez now commands Capt. Robert Todd, an adjunct professor at the same community college, Rio Hondo, where Lopez is a student. Lopez, who was Maywood's chief for five years, said he is working toward a bachelor's degree in administration of justice.

Union-administration relations have worsened steadily since officers last year helped launch a recall drive against three council members and Treasurer Albert Robles, the city's perceived political boss. The unions and other recall supporters believe the four officials are corrupt, accusations the leaders deny.

Tensions between Robles and the unions have always run high. The city explored the possibility of replacing the police force with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, a move officers say was inspired by Robles' disdain for the unions. Robles has also been criminally charged with threatening to kill Lt. Vince Avila, one of his outspoken critics.

Robles denies the allegations. He has said the Police Department has been resistant to change, especially to measures that could result in cost savings, such as contracting services from the Sheriff's Department.

By bringing in Lopez, officials said they hope to bolster their emergency response capabilities. But the appointment has resurrected allegations of corruption in the selection process.

The most serious involves accusations made by Pat Connolly, a retired former police chief. In a declaration, Connolly said a condition of his participation on the selection committee was agreeing to choose a pre-selected candidate.

Connolly said Lou Moret, the city's reorganization consultant, told him in September that he must select the candidate they want. Connolly said he refused. Moret was not available for comment.

The allegation anchors a lawsuit filed by the unions that aims to block Lopez's appointment. The legal action, which also attempts to block several recent changes, is set for a hearing next week.

The lawsuit sparked a counterclaim in which Lopez alleged that some South Gate police officers threatened him while serving him with the court papers. The claim was thrown out by a federal judge, citing a lack of evidence.

Although Lopez's title is assistant chief of police, he will be the highest-ranking officer. Union officials say city leaders have left the police chief position unfilled to get around a provision requiring union approval.

Lopez acknowledges that he arrives under difficult circumstances, but said he is ready to "embrace" the challenges ahead of him. He denies being Robles' hand-selected candidate.

Lopez will be tested immediately. The council recently passed several controversial measures, and his response will be closely watched.

Lopez's predecessor, Deputy Chief Tommy Tunson, quickly fell out of favor with the administration after resisting some changes. He now reports to Lopez.

One recently approved measure requires all officers, except undercover personnel, to wear uniforms.

Several law enforcement experts said the rule is highly unusual and potentially dangerous. They said it could especially hinder detectives, who usually dress inconspicuously to interview potential witnesses or suspects.

The administration also changed officers' schedules from three-day, twelve-hour shifts, to five-day, eight-hour schedules. Unlike other communities where such moves are made after extensive studies, South Gate officials enacted theirs without research.

Causing additional conflict is the city's decision to allow voters to decide if police chiefs should speak Spanish.

Such a referendum is necessary, officials said, to improve communication between police brass and the city's majority Latino population.

But union leaders believe the rule is aimed at punishing non-Spanish-speaking command officers who have led the recall effort.

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