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A reformer rises at the LAPD

May 11, 2007|Celeste Fremon | CELESTE FREMON is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Institute of Justice and Journalism, the author of "Father Greg and the Homeboys" and editor of WitnessLA.com.

FOR MOST OF this week, the May Day revelations got worse and worse. After alarming videos surfaced one after the other on YouTube, Police Chief William J. Bratton announced Tuesday that 24 civilians had been hit, slammed to the ground or shot with nonlethal "bullets," more than twice as many victims as originally thought. Then late Wednesday, a group of civil rights lawyers calling themselves "the May Day litigation team" filed a hefty class-action suit against the Los Angeles Police Department and the city, alleging a new litany of costly sounding cop abuses.

It helped somewhat that Bratton earlier in the week ignored the "wait and investigate" harrumphing of the police union and used common sense by publicly disciplining and reassigning the head of the Operations Central Bureau, Deputy Chief Cayler "Lee" Carter, and Cmdr. Louis Gray, the two highest-ranking officers in the park that day. The move signaled in a way that no rhetoric could that the chief is serious about addressing the gunslinger-warrior mentality (as civil rights lawyer Connie Rice calls it) that still runs through far too much of the LAPD.

But it was the chief's subsequent announcement naming Cmdr. Sergio Diaz to replace Carter that may have been the best news of the week. Many LAPD watchers likely missed the significance though, because, until Tuesday, few people outside the department had heard of Diaz.

"Sergio is extremely highly educated, well respected and has a command presence," Bratton said when I asked him Tuesday evening why he promoted Diaz to deputy chief. "But he isn't the first guy in the class to raise his hand just to draw attention to himself."

More to the point: "He has a very thoughtful and deliberative demeanor" and isn't prone "to making rash decisions." (In other words, he's not the type to send his troops chasing after reporters and immigrant mothers.)

It didn't hurt that Diaz, a Cuban American, is the highest-ranking Spanish speaker in the department, or that he has held various high-level jobs since he joined the LAPD in 1977, including head of the training division.

"His academy background is particularly helpful," Bratton said, "because we're going to be involved in a lot of retraining throughout the department in terms of the issues that got identified at MacArthur Park. Those things aren't going away anytime soon."

I first met Diaz in the summer of 2002, when he was head of the Police Academy, the Rampart scandal was fresh and the department had to prove itself capable of meeting the demands of the federal consent decree. I'd reported on gangs for a dozen years by then, and that experience convinced me that the LAPD didn't understand its own problems, much less how to fix them.

I was surprised when Diaz didn't fit the mold. He was refreshingly candid and possessed a clearer view of the department's failings than most of the LAPD's most adamant critics.

"We're built on a military model, but we're not the military," he told me then. "We treat the recruits in a rigid way in our training, and yet we expect them to be humanistic and innovative. So we're giving them a mixed message."

Society gives cops a similar mixed message, he said. "It's 'do something about crime, but don't tell us how you do it; be ethical and be Dirty Harry.' "

So how does one snap somebody out of a Dirty Harry attitude? "There needs to be an interest in listening. It sounds overly simple. Yet, we say in our platitudes and our management principles that we work for the public, but we haven't always behaved as if we mean it.

"The wise thing," he said, "is to act as if everyone else is an important human being with real complications in their lives, real temptations, real desires to do the right thing. But if the attitude is 'only me and the guys like me are the ones worth worrying about,' that's going to come through in the way we police.

"Of course, training all by itself isn't going to solve everything," Diaz added. "It has to be part of a bigger system. The hope is that there would be an alignment throughout the department, where everyone understood what's important."

Well, yes. And yet here we are half a decade later, and despite the progress made, it's precisely that "alignment" that was sorely lacking on May Day. The default position for those black-clad officers in MacArthur Park was over the top, hard-charging -- not humanistic -- and not by the rules.

So how can the department reset that "default" to avoid future May Days, I asked Diaz on Thursday. "That's the million-dollar question," he said. "Sometimes we think we've overcome an issue and we find we need to go back to basics. We need to concentrate on the 'when to shoot,' instead of the 'how to shoot.' "

This past week, Bratton has seemed more grimly serious about psychological reform than he has since his first few months on the job. He has admitted the need to overcome LAPD's culture of "isolation" -- his word -- from the people it polices. In truth, there's probably no one better than Sergio Diaz to take on that task as the new head of the embattled Central Bureau.

One man's promotion can't cancel the bad news of the last 11 days. Yet as we wait to see if the LAPD can ever truly put 60 years of "command and control" behind it, we take whatever hopeful signs we can get.

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