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The Next Chief of Police Should Be, First and Foremost, a Cop

The leader of the LAPD must know firsthand what makes officers tick.

September 12, 2002|JAY WACHTEL | Jay Wachtel, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Cal State Fullerton, spent 25 years in law enforcement.

As The Times recently noted, "over the last 10 years, the Los Angeles Police Department has had three chiefs, all of whom left under fire." Each time, community leaders winnowed through a pool of candidates, looking for that one charismatic leader who could single-handedly negotiate Los Angeles' political and social minefields, boost officer morale and lift a supposedly foundering agency out of a quagmire--all without costing an additional cent.

Again, we're playing the same tune. Again, will we hit a sour note?

At the woefully underfunded LAPD, the pressures of business are so intense that doing a good job as a patrol officer is measured by how quickly one "clears" calls for service. Many detectives cannot remember the days when "investigation" meant something more than picking up the telephone.

After decades of chronic short-staffing, time and attention are luxuries reserved for the most aggravated crimes. Worse, with sergeants tied up on internal investigations and paperwork, and senior lead officers distracted by other tasks, supervision--a difficult enough thing to accomplish in the decentralized atmosphere of police work--has disappeared.

When essential resources are in short supply, attributing difficulties only to poor "morale" or weak leadership is simply ridiculous.

Lacking the money or political will to fix the real problem, exasperated officials have turned to an endless stream of remedies. One of the better known is "community policing." This is an appealing but frustratingly vague strategy that has generated volumes of overblown rhetoric, supported the careers of many academics and created a fat bureaucracy in Washington. Still, as its implementation would require many more officers, not fewer, it is hard to see how this expensive fix could play in cash-strapped L.A.

Reforming "police culture" is another enticing, feel-good fix. Stripped to its essence, it promises something for nothing: that we can produce a kinder, gentler, more responsive police force by having officers take a few classes or recline on a couch for therapy. But occupational cultures do not spring up in a vacuum. Police are shaped by their surroundings.

Want nicer cops? Breed nicer citizens. Achieving that end calls for a dynamic social and economic agenda, something far beyond the ability of even the most enlightened police leader to implement.

Still, if the money isn't forthcoming, morale is important, if for no reason other than to keep the few cops we have left. LAPD officers have always been in demand by smaller agencies, which offer less stress, shorter commutes and the luxury and autonomy of single-officer patrol cars.

So we return to the question: Who should be chief?

To earn the respect of the line, it must be someone who is deeply invested in the craft of policing. Moving through the ranks of larger agencies takes so long that ambitious employees often spend little time on the street.

Those who rapidly rise to administrative sinecures have sent a clear message: They are not that interested in the real work of the police.

Microsoft was created and continues to be led by talented engineers with an intimate knowledge of product and place. There is no difference here. A chief must know what makes cops tick. To energize a police organization and nudge it in the appropriate direction requires someone who understands the sensibilities of officers and the environment in which they operate. These characteristics are most likely present in candidates with a strong background in patrol and detective work, both as a line officer and first-and second-level supervisor.

Policing is an honorable occupation. Its troubles are fundamentally troubles of the street. We need a chief attuned to its nuances, who knows enough to be skeptical of easy solutions, who can resist being co-opted by the troops while still recognizing there is a difference between working mistakes and willful misconduct.

The LAPD has many experienced captains and commanders who could rise to the occasion. Don't look for a big name. Look for a big heart.

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