Driving a busy desk

At the front counter in LAPD's Southwest Division, officers witness all manner of misery as they juggle calls and complaints.

April 23, 2008|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Seven hours into her shift, Los Angeles Police Officer Nazik Halburian faced a lanky man in a filthy T-shirt stretched across the counter of the Southwest Division station. "I just want my disability!" he cried.

The man had been in the lobby all day, ever since being released from jail. He'd been detained on a psychiatric hold. Now he had nowhere to go, no one to call and no money: He had lost his disability-benefits check. The tongues of his shoes flopped out. He had no socks.

He was just one of the many problems for Halburian and her colleagues that day -- four LAPD officers pulled from patrol duty to staff the public lobby of the station on Martin Luther King Boulevard in the Crenshaw district.

The city controller last month recommended that more than 400 desk jobs now assigned to sworn LAPD officers be performed by less expensive civilian clerks. That includes some front-desk positions such as the one held by Halburian, who works at one of the department's busiest stations.

The change is viewed favorably by Chief William J. Bratton and probably will be welcomed by officers, many of whom detest the dreary, confining desk assignments. Officers often are placed there after injuries or because they face disciplinary proceedings and must be removed from the field, which gives the job the taint of punishment.

Rarely is the job conducive to heroic exploits. Much of the work is routine, and about the only time front-desk officers make the news is when they are being scrutinized for their unwillingness to take complaints against fellow officers.

But a recent afternoon at the Southwest front desk underscores why such jobs may never be relegated entirely to civilians. In more ways than one, said Capt. James Craig, the desk is "like a patrol car."

And like patrol, for officers such as Halburian, a long day's shift there "wears you out and is sometimes heart-wrenching," she said.

That afternoon, all manner of misery was on display. Robbery victims. Identity-theft victims. Wronged lovers.

In five hours, Halburian, 26, a blond with a heart-shaped face and sunburned arms, never got more than a three-minute break as she faced the station's front door. The phone rang constantly. People signed in and waited.

Except the man who had lost his disability check, that is. Midway through the day, he simply charged the desk and demanded his money. As his voice grew louder, Halburian and her colleagues rummaged for an address where he could get help. But then the man took off his shirt and stormed out.

One down, dozens to go. Mostly, Halburian and her colleagues dealt with mundane questions: how to visit a loved one in jail, for instance, or how to retrieve a car from the impound yard. But a substantial number of interactions required more subtle skills: listening, scolding, advising. "You're kind of like a counselor up here," said Officer Juan Colon, Halburian's co-worker.

After the man upset over the disability check left the lobby, Halburian and her colleagues got a visit from a man in a shapeless blue hat. His skin was leathery, his speech slurred. An acquaintance had swiped a police badge, he declared.

Colon eyed him. "A badge? A real one?" he asked.

Halburian turned away for a call. An elderly man who lived near the freeway was frightened by the new graffiti on an overpass. "It's nothing threatening," she reassured him, then listened to his long response, doodling on a white tablet.

It was his second call to her that day.

The owner of a barking dog entered. He pulled a sheaf of papers from a manila envelope -- letters between the man and his neighbors, who didn't like the dog -- and unzipped a sandwich bag full of red plastic chips, which he dumped on the counter:

Halburian looked at the letters. Another colleague, Officer Miguel Lopez-Munoz, frowned as he sifted through the chips.

"The neighbor threw these over the fence into the yard!" the dog owner told them, indignant. "He wanted to hurt the dog." Booking the red chips into evidence would prove to be one of the most time-consuming tasks of the day.

Shortly after, Colon was talking to a businesslike woman who folded her hands on the counter. She wanted to know why the hospital hadn't released her son from a 72-hour psychiatric hold. Three days earlier, the son had threatened her with a knife.

An elderly woman came in with two little girls. They had come, she said, for the intercambio -- the custody exchange. The officers told them to sit, and the girls perched on each side of the woman, swinging their legs.

Another woman holding a toddler swept in. "A guy is beating his girl down there -- right there, just down the street!" she said. A patrol car was dispatched. But nobody was found.

Emergencies are rare at the desk, but not unknown. Officers sometimes arrest people or call ambulances. Last year, a man bleeding from a gunshot wound stumbled to the front desk at LAPD's Newton station. He later died.

Los Angeles Times Articles