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Police Force: The Strong Arms of the Law

October 04, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

The semi-annual bench press competition is a Los Angeles Police Department tradition, a contest that pits officer against officer, precinct against precinct.

The intensely competitive event appears to celebrate one of the department's most controversial attributes -- brute force. But Lt. Paul von Lutzow, considered the contest's bench press mastermind, says otherwise. He argues the tournament reflects more nuanced aspects of LAPD culture and a changing department.

"Tactics, it's all tactics," he said, nervously surveying his team Friday at the start of the contest. "You can't win with brute force."

To hear Von Lutzow tell it, the bench-press competition is not a showcase of testosterone, but diversity, not of power but finesse. That's because winning is about hedging your bets across weight, age and gender categories.

"It's balance," von Lutzow said. "We don't have the strongest lifters. We have balance."

On another level, his strategy is an extraction of department ideals, and the weightlifting cops shift easily from talking about bench-press strategy to police work.

LAPD Officer Jane Russom, for example, could have been speaking of either one when she said of her job: "Strength might be what you need, but if you don't have strength, you use your brain. It's a balance."

Von Lutzow is a 33-year veteran of the department and one of the department's most notorious raconteurs. But he is uncharacteristically serious about the bench press. At 56, 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds, he said he lifts more than 300 pounds. His real contribution, however, is to apply a bookmaker's cunning to a sport of raw force.

For 15 straight tournaments, Von Lutzow has shepherded the 77th Street Division of South Los Angeles to victory.

"He's got strategy," said team member Officer Bob Bermudez, 44, 5-foot-8, 220 pounds, who lifts 350. The 77th's secret, like that of good policing, he said, "isn't strength. It's variety of experience. It's prepare for the worst, hope for the best."

The LAPD still puts a high value on physical strength.

Officers are not required to meet fitness standards for work, but "I think we are a lot more fit now," said Officer Frank Preciado of LAPD recruiting.

The most effective incentive -- in evidence at the tournament -- is peer pressure, he said. Officers may not have to do push-ups for their jobs. But sound winded over the radio during a foot pursuit and you'll be ribbed back in the station.

Police fitness also has been driven by tougher streets, said Sgt. Johnny Jones of Southeast Division, 5-foot-8 and 196 pounds, with a 330-pound bench. He said weight-lifting among prison inmates has spawned an arms race of brawn between cops and criminals, with each side becoming progressively bulkier.

Few officers match the likes of the 77th Street Division's Officer Alberto Franco, 30, 260 pounds at 5-foot-8, who can lift 550 pounds. But many now spend hours in the gym.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the 77th Division, one of the city's busiest and most violent, appears to lead the LAPD in burly cops.

There is no way around it. The job there can be physical. Sgt. Jones, whose division polices Watts, said it's not uncommon for at least one officer per shift to get into a scuffle. Day-to-day confrontations leave officers bruised and scratched, and sometimes result in controversial uses of force.

But Von Lutzow said the 77th's success in weightlifting does not reflect a desire by officers to match street violence with force.

Rather, he said, he has been able to dominate the competition by exploiting the LAPD's new diversity. Lifters compete in categories determined by age, weight and gender. So Von Lutzow recruits his team as much for variety as ability.

The 77th team's oldest competitor is 68. Forty percent are women. And besides some conspicuous muscle-men, Von Lutzow also taps some unlikely competitors -- 100-pound women and short, fiftysomething detectives.

Von Lutzow's success comes from the same changes in the LAPD that critics say water down the department's traditional strengths. Over the past decade, the LAPD has dropped its fitness requirements for new recruits and eliminated size and age requirements to win a wider variety of applicants.

It has worked. Twenty years ago, the department was nearly 80% white and more than 95% male. Today, 44% of LAPD officers are white and nearly one-fifth are female. Moreover, officers now come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds -- there are high-school graduates and lawyers, conservative Christians and gay activists, people who grew up in the same L.A. neighborhoods they now police, and people who grew up in the Midwest.

In this way, the challenge of the bench press contest is the same as that of managing officers, said Sgt. Dana Adams, 38, 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, who can lift 300 pounds. The key to both, he said, is deploying disparate elements effectively.

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