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Shaking the `Warrior Cop' Mentality a Test of City's Will

July 16, 2006|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

IF Los Angeles can be defined by a psychological trait, it would be willfulness.

The force of will, sprinkled with greed, brought water to the city in the early 20th century and allowed it to grow. Willful civic leaders gave Los Angeles its port in 1907, cleaned out its corrupt leadership in favor of Progressive reforms and even supplied it with some of its cultural gems, including the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and, more recently, Disney Hall.

But, as the newly released report by the Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel argues, no such exercise of will has been able to dislodge a powerful subculture within the Los Angeles Police Department, one that has done much to harm the city in recent generations.

Colorfully dubbed "warrior cops," an evolving clique of aggressive LAPD officers who rely on force and intimidation has resisted 40 years of attempts to manage crime in the city differently.

The warrior cop -- known more blandly within the LAPD as the "proactive police officer" -- was the invention of Police Chief William H. Parker, who headed the LAPD from 1950 to 1966. That style of policing and the officers who embrace it have done much to protect Los Angeles in the years since. In many ways, they are symbolic of the city's police -- think "Dragnet," "The New Centurions."

But officers who take it too far, who cross the line from command presence to unlawful force, have also been responsible for devastation. Their racial callousness and penchant for brutality fueled the Watts riots of 1965 as well as the riots that erupted after the Rodney G. King verdicts in 1992. They were responsible for the Rampart scandal, and they have supplied much of the tension between police and minority communities that was a defining feature of late-20th century Los Angeles.

No commission, no mayor and no chief has ever succeeded in bringing that culture to heel; indeed, it remains iconic in the city's police force.

"Most LAPD officers are not warrior cops," this latest report concludes. "But most LAPD heroes are."

Warren M. Christopher, the former secretary of state who chaired the Christopher Commission in 1991, agreed that the persistence of that police culture is troubling.

"This is something that has worried me for a long time," he said. "It's much too glib to talk about bad apples. It's much broader than that."

Now, the burden of confronting that subculture moves to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and it is unclear how committed he will be to the challenge. Since assuming office a year ago, Villaraigosa has offered unflinching support for Chief William J. Bratton and expressed confidence that the LAPD is heading in the right direction. Last week, the mayor said he would also play an "active" role in seeing that the Rampart reforms are put in place. "We are very fortunate that we have a great command staff, a great chief and a police commission who are reform-minded," he said.

But with the panel's report comes a reminder that reform requires more than rhetorical support to protect the city from violence triggered by its most aggressive police officers.

The report goes so far as to maintain that many officers fail even to see the warrior cop as a problem.

"Blue-ribbon elites," the report finds, "often fail to understand that what they view as 'problems' needing fixing are policing norms that officers defend."

When he became chief in 1950, Parker set out to break the LAPD's reputation for corruption, one it shared with other big-city police agencies. Officers walking beats were accused of taking bribes. So Parker put officers in squad cars and limited their contact with the public -- police were expected to roll to crimes, arrest suspects and return them to stations. The opportunities for graft were minimized as the contact with the public was curtailed.

But that had other consequences: Parker's overwhelmingly white force glided through the city, plucking suspects from the streets and expanding its influence by quickly resorting to force. The notion of the LAPD as an invading army took hold in those years, and police-community relations deteriorated alarmingly.

In 1965, Watts exploded after a confrontation between a highway patrol officer and a black man drew a crowd that turned on the officer. Six days of violence followed. Analyzing that riot in its aftermath, the McCone Commission noted that just 10% of the department's officers were disciplined in the year before the riots. That 10%, however, contributed to a "deep and long-standing schism between a substantial portion of the Negro community and the Police Department."

The McCone Commission's report, frequently cited in the Rampart review unveiled this week, recommended a stronger civilian Police Commission, creation of an inspector general to study police misconduct, better investigations of citizen complaints and improved community relations, among many other things. Those would become recurring themes in the years ahead.

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