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Short List Creates Divide in the Ranks of LAPD

Chief: New recruits look forward to new era under an outsider. Brass and some veterans feel the sting.

September 21, 2002|BETH SHUSTER and TINA DAUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Los Angeles Police Department is home to 9,000 police officers, from the 39 newest graduates of the academy to veterans whose experience includes some of the best and worst times in the storied department's history.

As news of the Police Commission's decision to tap three outside candidates as finalists to lead the LAPD spread Friday, the rank and file absorbed the names with reactions that often varied by tenure and rank.

For some of the LAPD's most senior officials, the list--William Bratton, former New York police commissioner; Art Lopez, chief of the Oxnard Police Department; and John Timoney, former Philadelphia police commissioner--was a blow to career ambitions nurtured over decades. And those officers were stung by the omission of anyone currently in the department, including any one of them.

For new recruits, by contrast, the rejection of the LAPD's own candidates carried no particular weight, and the prospect of a new dawn for the Police Department inspired confidence.

And for those in the middle ranks who have worked through the department's difficulties and relished its bright moments, the candidates for chief produced a more complicated set of reactions. Some worried that it reflects a loss of confidence by the city leadership in their work, and several said they hope Mayor James K. Hahn will pick Lopez, the only one of the finalists who has experience with the LAPD.

The generational split was evident at the Police Academy in Elysian Park, where deputy chiefs and other commanders gathered for the graduation of the LAPD's newest class.

Before the graduates accepted their honors, however, a group of the top brass assembled inside for a subdued breakfast, punctuated by flashes of dark humor. One deputy chief was told he should have gone to New York for a couple months before applying for the top job.

"Maybe in the upper ranks there will be some disappointment," said Capt. Sharyn Buck, "but you know what? It will be a good person, because the commission is doing their best. I know they are."

The unhappiness of LAPD's senior management was expressed privately as well. When the decision was made Thursday, detectives and commanders in Parker Center, the police headquarters downtown, said doors began closing on the sixth floor--where the top brass have offices.

Former Deputy Chief William Rathburn, who lives in Texas, said his phone started ringing within hours of the announcement. Rathburn said some of the calls were from former LAPD associates grousing that he should have applied for the job--at least then, they complained, an LAPD veteran who shared their sense of the department might have made the cut.

To several of the new graduates, who tossed their caps into the air after the ceremony, it matters more that they are part of the LAPD than who is selected to lead them.

"I'm just so pumped up right now because I'm here," said Police Cadet Wayne Edwards. "When you go out there and look at all the different organizations, this is the one that has the best opportunities.... I'm LAPD, and I will follow what I've gotta do."

Away from the gloom of the brass and the ebullience of the new officers, police across the city expressed more nuanced views of the future.

Many expressed concerns about a newcomer to Los Angeles, a prospective chief who would not even know his way around the city, let alone the department. Others acknowledged that the LAPD has brought some discredit onto itself and said they appreciated the commission's desire to bring in fresh leadership.

"My sincere question is, who does the new chief turn to for an honest answer to the question: 'Who's who in the zoo?' " said Capt. Joseph Curreri. "That's the dilemma."

Curreri, echoing the view of many interviewed, said the new chief should set a positive tone with the rank and file and ease into his agenda rather than attempting major reforms overnight.

"I think it would be a mistake for any chief to come in here hard-nosed and say, 'There are a lot of problems in this organization and you people are all part of them,' " Curreri said. "He needs to be tactful in the approach and not come in thinking everybody's a jerk, because we're not."

Officer Todd Clease, who patrols the Southwest Division, was among those to say they believe a new chief could be a refreshing change.

"We need more than just a manager," Clease said. "We need someone who is a true leader, who understands where we are now and who has a vision for where we need to go in the future."

At the LAPD's Hollenbeck Division, in one of the oldest sections of the city, support on the street seemed to be growing for Lopez, a former LAPD official who left to lead a small-town department. Though Mayor James K. Hahn emphasizes the need to hire a chief who can change the culture of the LAPD, several officers were worried about the prospect of a chief who did not come up through their ranks.

Lopez was their favorite.

"He's the perfect choice," said Senior Lead Officer Vincent Rodriguez. "The guy bleeds LAPD."

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