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LAPD gang units feel the pinch of financial disclosure rule

Many rank-and-file cops see the requirement -- a result of the department's consent decree -- as an insult. It could erode the strength of the units.

December 28, 2009|By Scott Gold and Joel Rubin

The LAPD is struggling to fill vacancies in gang units as a financial disclosure rule meant to fight corruption has been received by many rank-and-file cops as an insult -- and a deal-breaker when it comes to working the tough gangland assignments.

After years of contentious battles with police union representatives over the issue, Los Angeles Police Department officials pushed through a policy in April that requires gang officers to disclose details of their personal finances.

Intended to help supervisors catch cops who are taking bribes or to identify officers in financial straits who might be tempted to stray, the policy has considerable reach: Officers must disclose outside income, real estate, stocks and other assets. They also have to report the size of bank accounts and debts, including mortgages and credit cards. And the disclosures apply to any financial holdings a cop shares with family members and business partners.

When it went into effect, then-Chief William J. Bratton and other officials insisted that the policy would have little effect on recruiting and retaining gang cops and vowed to block efforts by officers to leave gang units en masse in protest.

But erosion in the ranks is apparent. According to interviews with police officers and gang unit supervisors across the city, the number of officers dedicated to fighting gangs is beginning to drop. And top brass now acknowledge that they must do more to confront discontent and distrust.

Percolating indications of trouble can be found across the city.

Earlier this year, for instance, supervisors at the Newton Area station in South Los Angeles, where 51 street gangs are active in the nine-square-mile patrol area, received permission from higher-ups to add 14 officers to the station's gang operation. It was welcome news and would have nearly doubled the number of officers dedicated to gang activity. Few officers, however, applied for the job.

Surprised, supervisors resorted to measures they'd never taken before, such as placing notices in cop newsletters. Nothing seemed to work. The reason, they said: the new financial disclosure policy.

The policy also includes officers serving on narcotics details, although the discontent seems focused among gang officers. The roughly 600 officers already assigned to affected units when the policy went into effect in April were granted a two-year grace period, and so far it appears that few, if any, officers have left a gang assignment rather than sign the forms. The problem, the supervisors say, is one of attrition.

LAPD officers have traditionally moved from one assignment to the next with great regularity. Gang units are affected along with all other divisions. But now, officers who want to join gang units for the first time have to sign the disclosure forms, and few appear willing to do that.

When gang teams are hit with the usual mix of transfers and promotions, jobs open up. According to department figures, 20 new gang officers across the city -- and a few narcotics officers -- have agreed to sign the disclosure forms, but supervisors say that hasn't been nearly enough to keep pace with new vacancies.

Another LAPD rule sets a five-year cap on the number of consecutive years an officer can work in a gang unit. That makes for an even higher rate of turnover in gang units than in many other LAPD divisions, compounding the problem.

Uncertain of the actual number of vacancies throughout the department, top LAPD officials are conducting an audit of gang unit enrollment. They expect it to be completed in coming weeks.

Supervisors and gang officers, however, said the problem is serious. One South L.A. gang unit that had 18 officers at the beginning of the year is down to 13, with more departures expected in the coming months. Another had 35 gang officers; it now has 24. Newton eventually filled most of the new positions approved by the department, but only by poaching gang officers from other stations, not by training new ones. Today, seven months after the positions were approved, five remain vacant.

Supervisors and area commanders have tried to take matters into their own hands. Many, if not most, gang units in the city "overstaffed" earlier this year, with too many officers assigned to them intentionally, as a buffer against the onset of the financial disclosure rule. But already, those units are seeing their numbers drop to levels at or below where they were before the over-staffing.

In interviews, officers gave numerous reasons why they would seek assignments elsewhere in the department rather than abide by the disclosure rules. Some said they fear the data could be used against them in discipline proceedings or in court, and others said they question the department's ability to store the information safely. Others said the disclosure rules do little to catch or deter rogue police officers.

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