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'Insider/Outsider' in the LAPD Finals

September 22, 2002|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

For a cop, Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez is a pretty good politician. Which is one of the reasons he emerged from a crowded field of candidates to be a finalist for a job he has long groomed himself for: chief of police in Los Angeles.

Nothing against the two other fine men whose names were also put forward last week by the Police Commission to be considered by Mayor James K. Hahn for the LAPD's top job--former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton and former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John Timoney--but this process is now all about Lopez.

Although he now heads the biggest police department in Ventura County, and thus qualifies as an "outside" candidate for LAPD chief along with the other two finalists, Lopez is really the last "inside" candidate for the job.

By putting Lopez's name on the list of three finalists, the Police Commission provided political cover for the mayor with two important constituencies: rank-and-file officers and the city's large and restive Latino community.

The LAPD side of that political equation is easier to summarize. It is a proud and largely insular organization facing difficult but necessary change. Having spent 27 years in the LAPD, working his way from patrolman in the San Fernando Valley to deputy chief downtown before leaving for Oxnard, Lopez offers some reassurance to the average L.A. cop that not everything about LAPD's history and culture will necessarily be cast aside in the rush to reform.

Lopez's ties to the Latino community reflect the complex history of relations between the LAPD and Latinos. Coming largely from a rural, Catholic culture, Latinos are instinctively respectful of authority. They often live in poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods, so they also like having the police around. Yet the LAPD's relationship with Latinos has been notoriously bad, improving only in the last two or three decades.

Lopez has been in the forefront of helping bring that improvement about. From the time he joined the department in 1971, he was active in the support organization for Latino LAPD officers, the Latin American Law Enforcement Assn., or La Ley. He mentored younger Latino officers, which should stand him in good stead now that one-third of the department's 9,000 officers are Latino.

But the history that should help him more with the community at large is what Lopez did in the late 1980s, when he was in command at LAPD's Hollenbeck Division in the heavily Latino Eastside. Lopez, a native of East Los Angeles, instituted a community policing program that many within the LAPD still consider a model. It included a "citizen's police academy" that encouraged young people in the area to do volunteer work with police and helped diminish the suspicion with which some young Latinos viewed police officers.

That is typical of Lopez's approach, according to Rudy de Leon, a retired LAPD captain who mentored Lopez. "He tries to establish a rapport with everyone he deals with, and uses it to establish a good working relationship. That's why Art was always so well-liked within the department."

Lopez has wanted the LAPD's top job since he was a finalist for the position five years ago, when then-Mayor Richard Riordan made Bernard Parks chief.

This time around he waged a low-key but effective campaign for the post, cultivating Latino business and political leaders with ties to Hahn, such as Bastion Capital Chairman Danny Villanueva, who had summoned a group of Latino leaders to discuss the new chief's selection with the mayor. "We never insisted that a Latino had to be the next chief," Villanueva says. "But we made it clear that the consensus in the community is, 'We've waited patiently, and it's about time.' So we insisted on fair and serious consideration for Art and the other Latino candidates."

But now that the politics of this key appointment is out in the open, the going could get rougher for Lopez. Although many Latino activists in Oxnard like him and speak well of his work there, the city has been torn recently by a series of troubling police shootings, including three of mentally ill people. That could provide political fodder for critics and give Hahn an excuse to pass over Lopez after giving him "fair and serious consideration."

Then there is the matter of La Ley, which opted to endorse another well-regarded Latino, Cmdr. George Gascon of the LAPD Training Group, for the chief's job. "Nothing against Art," said La Ley President Art Placencia, a veteran LAPD detective, "but we just felt Gascon was the best candidate. He's younger and respected in the department."

No doubt it would be easier for La Ley, and the rest of LAPD, if that new chief turns out to be Art Lopez. But there is a lot more politics to be played out before that happens.

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