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Paying a Price for Freebies

Merchants' handouts and discounts for police are a tradition that some chiefs want ended, calling them unseemly and compromising.

October 12, 2002|JACK LEONARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting on a restaurant patio, Anaheim Police Det. Bruce Bottolfson chomped on a chicken drumstick, violating department policy with every bite.

Moments earlier, the on-duty investigator had strolled into the El Pollo Loco on Anaheim's Ball Road and ordered a two-piece chicken meal with cole slaw. Noticing the Anaheim Police Assn. logo on Bottolfson's navy blue T-shirt, the cashier rang up the standard 50% police discount.

Handouts and price breaks for police officers--a free coffee here, half-price dry cleaning there--are time-honored and pervasive, woven into the very fabric of relations between police and public. Now, a band of reform-minded chiefs is trying to banish these benefits, arguing that they corrode a cop's sense of right and wrong. To some department brass, the discounts are the last vestiges of graft that was once rife in American policing. They see freebies as a slippery slope likely to lead officers into greater sin. The Los Angeles Police Department's report on the roots of the Rampart Division scandal faulted officers for taking free coffee and food and recommended that the department crack down on the practice.

To patrol officers, the rules are out of step with reality. Refusing a store owner's generosity, they say, could destroy the very bridges they are supposed to build in era of community policing. They bristle at the suggestion that they can be bought for half the price of a chicken plate.

"This is harmless," groused Bottolfson, who saved $2.70 on his meal at El Pollo Loco. Behind him, a black-and-white cruiser inched along the restaurant's drive-through lane.

"Ask a chief, 'Did you ever take a free cup of coffee from Winchell's ?' " Bottolfson said, referring to the chain of doughnut shops. "If they say no, they're lying to you."

The world of police discounts has its own lexicon. Officers "badge" their way to a price break, "flex muscle" or wear the "blue discount suit." Restaurants that give discounts "show love," or, more commonly, "pop."

Temptations lie on almost every street corner, with discounts extending well beyond food to include jewelry and motor vehicles, even free entry to strip clubs.

A model code of ethics developed by the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police includes a pledge against "accepting gratuities," and almost every law enforcement agency in Southern California has such a prohibition. In police academies nationwide, cadets are warned about the ethical fallout from mooching.

"It sends the wrong message: that somehow police officers are entitled to something special," said Cypress Police Chief John Hensley. "If it comes to my attention, there will be discipline meted out."

Since taking the helm in Cypress three years ago, Hensley has moved aggressively to combat gratuities. Early on, he persuaded a local Sizzler restaurant to end police discounts. Last month, he talked the manager of a Starbucks coffee shop into halting the practice.

Crackdowns at other departments have become part of freebie folklore.

Simi Valley's department caused a furor several years ago when it launched an investigation of officers who were hanging out at doughnut shops that gave handouts. The department declined to comment on what the probe found. San Diego police officers were once ordered to stay out of more than a dozen eateries that had refused to stop offering discounts.

Despite the efforts, freebies flourish. Pick Up Stix, the Chinese food chain, offers police a price break. In-N-Out Burger is well known among cops for discounting meals, though the company said it doesn't have an official policy to do so.

The waitresses at most local Hooters restaurants offer discounts to police patrons (50% off, a Hooters spokesman said). Fantasy Ranch, a Long Beach strip club, waives the $7 entry fee for cops at the door.

"They're good customers," said Fantasy's general manager, Jerry Westlund. "I'd probably let in PTA presidents and members of the clergy for free if I could get enough of them."

From strip clubs to car dealerships, businesses realize that police officers make good customers. They come with a clean-cut image and, if they turn up in uniform, they provide cheap security.

Twenty-four-hour mini-marts--so vulnerable to crime that beat cops call them "stop-and-robs"--routinely offer police free coffee and sodas to encourage frequent visits. The discounts have become corporate policy at businesses like El Pollo Loco. At some eateries, cash registers have special keys that automatically calculate the break.

Focus on Businesses

Few chiefs have waged as vigorous a fight against gratuities as Michael Skogh, who retired this year from the Gardena Police Department.

Growing up in small-town Minnesota, Skogh watched his parents toil in the family ice cream parlor. The experience taught him how hard life could be for a small-business owner. Later, as a police officer in Orange County, Skogh had little respect for colleagues who ate for free in neighborhood stores.

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