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A warm farewell to the chief

November 14, 2009|SANDY BANKS

We've spent a lot of time recently celebrating the reign of Bill Bratton, whose LAPD legacy -- less crime, more accountability, closer ties between officers and neighborhoods -- is rooted in his promotion of community policing.

The chief's send-off last weekend was a gala befitting his celebrity, with a dinner menu by Wolfgang Puck, Conan O'Brien of "The Tonight Show" as the emcee and a glossy program fat with tributes from movie moguls and business leaders.

But just up the 110 Freeway in Pasadena, another police chief also took his leave last week, with a party that was considerably less chic.

The dinner buffet included hummus and tabbouleh. Rose Parade doyenne Stephanie Edwards was the emcee. And the magician's final gag fell flat when the chief refused to don a plastic parrot's beak.

But it's that chief, Bernard Melekian, who is heading off to Washington, D.C., to become the national face of community policing as head of the U.S. Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services program.

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When Melekian took the helm in Pasadena in 1996, the city was reeling from a plague of gang violence, including the Halloween night murder of three teenagers shot by gangbangers.

Pasadena is comparatively small, 148,000 residents to Los Angeles' 4 million. Yet Pasadena's many riches -- its landmark architecture and gracious old mansions, the Tournament of Roses, the Old Pasadena shopping and dining district -- obscured the dimensions of the city's growing crime problem:

Twenty-seven kids had been killed in the five years before he took over.

Melekian came in with a mantra -- "no more dead kids" -- and a vision of "values-based policing" that pricked the conscience of the city, helped cut the murder rate by 75% and helped to ease tensions between ethnic communities.

"People talk about community policing like it's 'Let's all go to a barbecue and hold hands,' " Melekian told me last week, as he packed up his office on his final day on the job. It isn't. But "it isn't rocket science either," he said.

"It's about relationships and service," from the cops on the beat right up to the chief, he said. "I showed up a lot. I listened. I tried to take action," he said. "I kept my promises."

And he helped launch an array of programs that made life better for officers and residents -- a peer counseling program to help troubled cops; outreach teams of officers and social workers to aid the homeless; a youth accountability board to help teens with one arrest get back on track.

In his new Justice Department job, he'll scour the country for other successful programs and help spread them to small departments.

"Like a buffet line," he told me. "Whether its homeless issues, drug abuse, gang violence, burglaries. . . . They can pick whatever fits their needs."

And although Pasadenans are proud of his rise, they are also sad to lose a man who "can go anywhere in this community and be received with open arms," as Joe Brown, NAACP Pasadena president, said at the dinner.

The event stretched from its planned two hours to almost four because so many community leaders, politicians and law enforcement officials lined up to present Melekian with gifts and share their stories.

I have admired Melekian for years and got a look at the man behind the badge that night.

I learned that when he was a rookie on the Santa Monica force, he was too modest to brag about his arrests but won a Medal of Valor there. As Pasadena police chief, he once gently disarmed a suicidal man outside his office and also served as a pallbearer for murder victims. And as a father he "was incredibly tough" on his three sons, found time to snake plugged drains, trim the trees and coach every one of his sons' Little League teams.

And I was not surprised at the evening's end, when Melekian took the stage and described the job he was leaving behind. He talked about "bringing justice to people," not about making arrests or cutting crime.

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Just as Bill Bratton was right for Los Angeles, with his bluntness and bluster and big dreams, Barney Melekian was right for Pasadena, with his humility, easy-going demeanor and talk of dignity and respect.

Both broke through the sense of helplessness that rising crime can bring. And that's important to people not just in Los Angeles or Pasadena, but across this sprawling region.

Criminals don't honor the boundaries on a city map. Our collective public safety depends on a network of healthy police departments and committed, progressive chiefs.

I could see that interdependence last week, in the procession of local police officials at Melekian's retirement dinner. They represented 46 cities and 6 million people, one officer told the crowd. And Melekian -- the 2009 president of the California Police Chiefs' Assn. -- was a leader they looked up to.

We can't afford clashes and gaps that impede cooperation across jurisdictions, whether it's following up on a child abuse complaint, tracking down a murder suspect or busting up a drug-dealing ring.

It benefits us all to recognize and support good policing, because troubled agencies shortchange more than the residents of their cities.

On Melekian's last day on the Pasadena force, he was busy tending to Burbank's problems.

The Burbank Police Department is being investigated by the FBI for allegations of excessive force. Amid the probe, the police chief has resigned and an officer committed suicide.

Last week, Pasadena officers patrolled Burbank streets, while Burbank officers buried their colleague. And Melekian dispatched his peer counseling team.

And I hope that as Burbank rebuilds, the department embraces Melekian's formula for community policing: Service and relationships.

Not just from cop to citizen but from community to community.

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sandy.banks@latimes

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