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L.A. Badge Outshines N.Y. Flash

East Coast candidates aren't the ticket for our police chief.

September 26, 2002|JOSEPH WAMBAUGH | Joseph Wambaugh is a former LAPD detective whose latest book is "Fire Lover," a true story (William Morrow, 2002).

In 1991, four LAPD cops gave a severe beating to ex-convict Rodney King. In 1999, four NYPD cops fired 41 rounds at innocent West African immigrant Amadou Diallo. King became rich eventually. Diallo became dead immediately. In 1996, two LAPD cops shot and framed a local youth, Javier Ovando. In 1997, two NYPD cops tortured and sodomized Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in their precinct station.

In this tale of two cities, the Los Angeles episodes were determined to be part of a "cop culture" of violence and "symptomatic," not "aberrant" like those of their New York Police Department counterparts, whose city and media maintained confidence in their police.

Just three months after the King beating, outsiders from the Christopher Commission, armed with preconceptions and a Thomas Guide, decided that the Los Angeles Police Department "routinely" committed brutal acts "under color of law" and labeled 44 cops as "potential" problem officers. No such warp speed inquiry and tea leaf prognostication plagued the NYPD.

L.A.'s 1996 Ovando incident escalated the so-called Rampart scandal, claims of widespread corruption and a federal consent decree, but it all fizzled with the prosecution of only two crooked cops.

Two former officials of the NYPD are finalists for the job of LAPD chief. One of these, William Bratton, lauded for computer crime fighting (years after it was pioneered by the LAPD) got into a public dust-up with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani over a Big Question: Which of them should get credit for the crime decrease in the 1990s, when age demographics and big-time jail terms made crime drop everywhere in the nation? Giuliani ultimately showed Bratton the door.

The other finalist, rumored to be the favorite, is John Timoney, who bolted from the NYPD after not receiving a promotion, a man who loves the spotlight only slightly less than Bratton and who himself called America's Mayor "a screw-up." Irish-born Timoney likes to say that his "immigrant understanding" would serve him in L.A.

Yet immigrant experience wasn't impressive enough to make Cmdr. George Gascon a finalist. He fled Castro's Cuba, mastered English and earned a law degree while serving with the LAPD.

The third finalist, Chief Art Lopez of the Oxnard Police Department, formerly a deputy chief with the LAPD, is the only "outside" finalist with inside knowledge and the only Latino to make the cut. He is highly educated, experienced and greatly respected by the cops and the community--a uniter, not a grandstanding divider, without limelight lust.

But if Lopez is not selected, neither he nor any of the LAPD rejects among the applicants should ape their Eastern counterparts and go job hunting in New York, even though most of the "innovations" that the Easterners crow about were begun by the LAPD, from community policing (under other names) to SWAT.

Imagine the Big Apple hoots if any of them had the chutzpah to knock on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's door looking for work. New York has unique problems, is too socially layered, too culturally sensitive, too politically complex for a West Coaster. It's another country there. On the other hand, Los Angeles is ... well, it's L.A., birthplace of Valley-speak and Planet Hollywood. What's to know, Laker stats? It takes vast local knowledge to lead the NYPD; the LAPD can be led by a boss from anywhere. Or so it seems.

At a time when LAPD morale is nearing meltdown, the selection of Bratton or Timoney would announce to the rank and file--especially Latinos who make up one-third of the department and nearly half of the city--that no matter how educated, experienced and talented they are, no matter how long they've waited, it is not yet their time. But if not now, when?

Sadly, most of the negative press that has buried the department during the last 10 years is the result of two decades of abysmal media relations.

Despite the LAPD's legendary excellence, its chiefs have been condescending to the press and insular at best, contemptuous and taunting at worst. The working cop has reaped media spin that their leaders have sown, chiefs who have never understood that a mistreated media is a lethal adversary.

No police force can succeed with hostile journalists at its throat. On the East Coast, where corruption and bribery were routine, the NYPD maintained public confidence because its leaders grasped that perception of the police is in large part media-driven. Both Bratton and Timoney have glowing press notices to prove it.

However, what the LAPD critics have never understood is just how easy it is for a cop to answer calls, write neat reports, study for promotions and stay out of trouble. In fact, many a cautious police chief has skated through his entire career doing just that: avoiding risky proactive work that might result in danger, controversy or, God forbid, public criticism.

But when police morale falls low enough, proactive policing ceases completely, and the public's protective shield shatters.

The City of Angels is still served by wonderfully trained, courageous officers (remember the North Hollywood shootout?), and working cops would rally around Art Lopez, who knows the misery they have endured for 10 years because of a very few bad apples and a string of media-myopic chiefs.

If Timoney is selected (L.A. does love celebrity), it will be the final insult, leading cops to conclude that the city secessionists are not such crackpots after all. If another carpetbagging farce plays out, call it Willie Williams Revisited, but a reprise of that debacle would doubtlessly delight news junkies.

Imagine the glee when Timoney pushes that Celtic kisser at the cameras, sneers toward City Hall and announces that Hizzoner the mayor is just another "screw-up." Stand by, media watchers, for some donnybrooks.

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