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Under Fire at the LAPD

April 1, 1996
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When Deputy Chief David Gascon talks about the Los Angeles Police Department, you get the idea he wouldn't mind returning to the less-fettered days of Adam 12 or Dragnet. It was an era when officers were respected and the bad guys were easy to identify; a time before Rodney King, the L.A. riots, O.J. Simpson, Mark Fuhrman and even the actions of Police Chief Willie Williams began to raise ethical questions and erode morale. "Beleaguered" may not be a strong enough word to describe the department that has been broadsided by an ongoing array of problems throughout the 1990s. It's one thing to become the world's most famous law enforcement agency, and it's another to become the most famous and most reviled.

Gascon, a 25-year veteran of the department and a deputy chief who oversees the human resources bureau, knows no amount of dreaming will ever return things to the nostalgic days of yesteryear. He knows the LAPD is caught in an enormous cross-fire between the public, the media, the courts, and a city and nation undergoing profound changes. "The department must adapt," he says with a sense of urgency and resignation. "We must always find ways to continue to improve."

Today, the LAPD is trying to reinvent and refashion itself to boldly march into new territory. During the last several months, the department of more than 10,000 has stepped up recruiting, tightened hiring practices and provided more training for officers. It has tried to slash bureaucracy and boost productivity—while making a far greater effort to sensitize itself to the needs of the community and its own officers. It's working to become less tolerant of racism and sexism, and it's attempting to boost morale and stem a hemorrhage of officers fleeing the force. Amid all the turmoil, one thing is clear: The city's future rides on its ability to change and adopt successful human resources practices.

Move to adopt corporate HR standards.
Whether it's succeeding with those changes—and whether the new practices are enough to turn things around—depends on one's perspective. The department certainly has its fair share of critics, many of whom claim it isn't doing enough to change its stodgy thinking. And its actions over the last few years have certainly done little to dissuade such sentiment. "The department is mired in a paramilitary mindset that doesn't work in today's world," remarks Carol Sobel, senior staff counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a class action suit against the LAPD charging sexual discrimination.

States Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, former president of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners: "The department can claim the press and politicians beat it up, it can claim the public doesn't understand, but incidents continue to happen." Greenebaum says he would like to see the organization subject to the same HR standards as any major corporation. "Most of the people who hold top positions don't have any real training. They're running things by the seat of their pants. They aren't career human resources professionals—they're cops who have been promoted."

Make no mistake, the force has endured a persistent battering by the press, politicians and the public, all of whom have questioned its commitment to eliminating racism, sexism and a litany of other nagging issues. But for Gascon, 46, who took over the HR helm in October of 1994, the focus remains forward and the outlook remains up. "The department has always been a command-and-control structure. There has always been a thick hierarchy," he says. "But this isn't the same police department it was in the past. We've changed and we'll continue to change as it's appropriate. We're working hard to enhance officers' skills, build a department that's cohesive and strong, and remain true to our mission: to help people and prevent crime. There's a lot of issues to tackle, but there's also an incredible opportunity."

Learn from the past.
If the events of the last few years have taught the LAPD's top brass anything, it's that the force must undergo change. The department's public lashing over the Rodney King beating and the clear embarrassment it suffered at the hands of Mark Fuhrman during the O.J. Simpson trial have signaled a need to deal with officers who harbor racist attitudes and adhere to less-than-professional standards. As Rabbi Greenebaum, puts it: "The recent problems raise serious questions about hiring, screening, training, retraining and many other practices. Although the LAPD has a core of officers who are dedicated and professional, it's very much in disarray."

One of the department's toughest challenges has been to hire enough officers to maintain adequate staffing—a problem that transcends morale. A decade ago, LAPD officers were among the highest paid in California. Not anymore. According to a 1993 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the department ranked 78th statewide out of 100 law enforcement agencies. In fact, LAPD officers typically earn 10% to 20% less than their counterparts in surrounding communities. Consider this: The maximum tenured salary for an LAPD officer, with benefits, is $45,431 a year. A few miles away in Glendale, a community with only 190,000 residents, officers top out at $56,700. "That has put us at a tremendous disadvantage for recruiting and keeping officers," states Gascon.

Help is on the way, though it might be too little too late. A $43 million federal grant is providing funding for 643 new officers on top of the current 8,622 (the LAPD also employs 2,842 civilians). But continuing high turnover has made that task difficult, to say the least. Many officers simply find better working conditions and higher pay elsewhere. In fiscal year 1994-95, for example, 486 officers left the force, a whopping 110 more than the year before. Even more disturbing: 140 of the cops were below retirement age. "We're trying to increase the LAPD's numbers to a higher level than ever before at a time when we're coping with negative publicity and attrition. Officer morale isn't what it should be," admits Dan Schatz, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department's personnel division.

Marketing the force.
Human resources is attempting to combat the recruitment problem with new strategies. It has begun recruiting aggressively and using techniques that might have once been considered wacky. Instead of limiting the search for new officers to job expos, football games and ex-military personnel, it now makes the rounds at universities, community events, ethnic gatherings, gay parades, even hot-air-balloon festivals and concerts. It also has begun raiding other police departments, landing trained officers who don't need to learn police work from the ground up. "We've taken the position there's nothing beyond the reach of the LAPD's recruitment efforts," says Gascon. The department also has put together a series of commercials that now appear on late-night local television.

Attracting large numbers of recruits is a start, especially if one considers less than 5% manage to graduate from the academy and hit the streets. That works out to recruiting 1,200 to 1,500 applicants to fill a class of 80 at the academy. But even successful recruiting doesn't eliminate many of the nagging problems the department has endured. For instance, a 1981 federal consent decree mandates local law enforcement agencies hire according to the ethnic and gender composition of their communities. The LAPD, along with many police departments, has scrambled to raise the numbers to acceptable levels.

The department largely has succeeded in reaching federal standards—only 40% of new recruits are white males compared to more than double that number three decades ago. Today, Hispanics account for 27% of the force, 15% of it are African Americans and 4% are Asians. However, the City of Los Angeles wants the department to boost the hiring of female officers to match the levels of the county workforce. That would push the number of women up from the current 25% to more than 43%. But finding qualified female applicants who are interested in police work and who are able to pass stringent physical tests has proven vexing, says Gascon. Women, perhaps because of social and cultural issues, still don't seek careers in law enforcement with the same interest level as men.

Another sticking point has been the applicant-screening process itself. Critics contend that the LAPD's background checks and psychological screening haven't done a good enough job in pinpointing potential problems. More emphasis needs to be placed on ferreting out racists and sexists before they're ever handed a badge, they say. "Mark Fuhrman isn't an isolated phenomenon," says Sobel. "Although the problem isn't as great as it was 10 years ago, there still are too many bad apples finding their way into the LAPD." Fuhrman, of course, was the lead detective responsible for collecting evidence at the Simpson estate after the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman two years ago. He gained particular notoriety after recordings of racist remarks he had made were played during O.J. Simpson's trial.

Commanding Officer Schatz admits the LAPD's selection practices aren't perfect, and that a partial revamp has taken place as a result of the Mark Fuhrman incident. (The LAPD also works with the City of Los Angeles to handle personnel matters relating to hiring, such as overseeing the process.) Moreover, the department is asking tougher questions and probing more thoroughly into applicants' backgrounds than ever before. In addition to a written exam, interview and various medical/psychological tests, candidates must pass a background investigation that includes an examination of work history, financial records and personal references. Candidates can be disqualified for any racist, sexist or homophobic comments or behavior. (See "Are You Well Armed to Screen Applicants?" in Personnel Journal's December 1995 issue.) "The bottom line is you can look around the country and see the fallout when stringent hiring practices aren't in place. Departments that have lowered their standards have found themselves in a lot of trouble," he says. In fact, the Chicago Police Department recently faced the public humiliation of discovering gang members on the force, while the Miami Police Department found it had hired several ex-felons—some with drug convictions.

Adds Gascon, who has faith in the basic integrity of the system: "We don't want anyone on this force who shows a lack of tolerance for anyone else, and we don't want anyone who displays a propensity toward violence. Still, no matter how carefully you check, a few individuals who harbor racist or sexist views are going to sneak through. There's no perfect system. Some people are very adept at concealing the truth."

The LAPD seems to be responding. In fact, some say the effort to tighten hiring practices has gone too far and that the department is now overreacting. In February, the Los Angeles Times chronicled a story of a candidate, Randy Mehringer, who finished third in his academy class, volunteered 2,000 hours as a reserve officer, and earned praise in the police union's newsletter and a guest spot on the television show Cops. But after making a racial joke about the Million Man March and later admitting it during a background interview for the LAPD, he was told he didn't meet the department's standards for "respect for others." The decision was questioned by many, including a deputy mayor and city councilwoman, who openly wondered whether the police department was setting unrealistic standards and focusing on a single incident at the expense of a candidate's history.

"There's were a lot of men who had a difficult time accepting the fact they had a female partner willing to get into a bar brawl or gunfight."

What all this points out, of course, is just how sensitive the issues of diversity and race are in Los Angeles. In a community in which more than 50% of the population now is Hispanic, Asian, African American and other minorities, the bar clearly has been raised to greater heights—and the LAPD is now trying to leap over the hurdle. It's all complicated by the department's long and festering history with minorities, who have accused it of harassment and unequal protection and enforcement. Although the LAPD has deployed officers who speak Spanish, Korean, Chinese and other languages into the field, critics contend the department still hasn't adapted to the community's needs and requirements.

Good cops, bad cops.
Whether the LAPD's personnel problems are a hiccup or a full-blown epidemic depends on who one talks to. Critics like Sobel argue that despite the department's public stance of adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward bad officers, too many problem officers remain. She's able to rattle off a list of lawsuits now directed at the department. Former Police Commission President Greenebaum echoes the sentiment. "Saying the force has a zero-tolerance policy doesn't eliminate the problem. There must be greater accountability and a greater willingness to discipline than presently exists."

Indeed, one of the loudest criticisms leveled at the LAPD is that it isn't punishing bad officers and aggressively weeding out problems. How, ask critics, could the likes of Mark Fuhrman exist on the force for years? How could certain officers land promotions and continue to deal with the public after highly questionable incidents? And there's plenty of evidence to support their claims. After the 1991 Rodney King beating, former Mayor Tom Bradley established the Christopher Commission, a blue-ribbon panel designed to offer recommendations on ways to reform and improve the department. Until recently, 33 of the 44 officers identified as problems by the commission still were on the force, and 19 were working the streets.

In September, one of the questionable cops, Andrew Teague, confessed to forging an important document in a murder case and promptly handed in his badge. Last July, another of the 44 officers, Michael Falvo, shot and killed a 14-year-old Latino boy. Police say Falvo responded to a report of teens brandishing a shotgun. But witnesses claim the boy had thrown the gun over a fence and only was holding a flashlight when police approached him. Falvo was temporarily assigned a desk job following the incident.

Gascon admits there have been problems. Yet, he also believes the media and critics have been too quick to issue blanket condemnations. "The fact is, you have to judge each individual and each incident on a case-by-case basis. You have to provide officers with due process. There's no question some officers require psychological referral and evaluation. There's no question discipline hasn't always been handled appropriately by the organization. But you can't go back and punish someone for something they did five years ago. We're attempting to educate our personnel and crack down on problem officers."

In fact, the department is battling the problem on several fronts. One of the most significant things it has done is establish a series of programs to deal with attitudes and values. In recent months, the LAPD has held seminars, sent out memos and held staff meetings designed to help officers identify colleagues who are beginning to experience problems. Anyone suffering from stress or personal problems is encouraged to voluntarily seek counseling, which is kept confidential. Officers can receive up to 10 sessions at no cost. In fact, if a superior feels that an officer needs attention, he or she can politely ask that person to attend sessions on a voluntary basis. If the officer refuses, it's then possible to order the individual to take a behavioral evaluation and receive counseling—though confidentiality no longer is provided.

The department also uses peer counselors—other officers who have excellent service records and years of experience—to informally mentor troubled officers. More than 200 currently exist, and each receives three days of training. In 1994, 3,828 officers received peer counseling, a 12% increase over the year before. "It's becoming more acceptable; officers are recognizing the value of sharing their problems and learning from the expertise and experience of others who have been through it before," says Sergeant Frank Virgallito, the LAPD's employee wellness coordinator and a peer counselor himself.

In fact, Virgallito believes the department is undergoing a profound change of values. Not only is it becoming acceptable—even desirable—for officers to use the peer counseling program, newer cops who attend the training academy are accustomed to both men and women in patrol cars—something that many older officers have never entirely adjusted to. "There's no question that when men and women started sharing patrol cars in the 1970s, there was tremendous resistance," says Virgallito. "There were a lot of men who had a difficult time accepting the fact they had a female partner willing to get into a bar brawl or gunfight. There was a tremendous distrust of their abilities. We still have a few dinosaurs, we still have a few harassment problems and gender discrimination, but the department is operating in a solid fashion."

Finally, there's the issue of training and retraining officers. Although new recruits continue to receive seven months of training, the organization also is beefing up training for existing officers. In the past, LAPD personnel received a minimum of 24 hours of ongoing professional training every two years—a figure that Gascon sees as inadequate. He now hopes to add 18 days of additional training per officer over the next 18 months. The department also is embarking on an ambitious project to provide training to desk officers who now are being redeployed into the field. More than 300 desk jobs and administrative functions now are targeted for civilian employees—including previously taboo areas like internal affairs and front-desk positions in stations. As a rule, civilians don't require the extensive background check and training of a peace officer and often are paid a lower salary. In fact, most civilians work at desk jobs or in labs that have nothing to do with actual policing.

Regain past glories.
It appears the Los Angeles Police Department is making progress. In 1995, it hired a record 1,164 new officers—nearly 11% above the goal set forth in Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan's Public Safety Plan. The department also received $26.9 million in additional funding from the City of Los Angeles to increase police staffing. Officers on the beat say while morale is still a problem and the department often lacks leadership and vision, things aren't quite as bleak as a couple of years ago. "It appears the department may be turning the corner and moving forward," says one 10-year veteran who prefers not to be identified. "The city and the department's top brass are beginning to understand it isn't business as usual. Times are changing and the department must keep up."

Gascon is certainly optimistic. A slide in funding that lopped the LAPD's portion of the city budget from about 35% in the mid-1970s to below 25% in the 1980s has begun to turn around. Old and obsolete equipment also is being replaced. And, through it all, the department has learned to manage resources more efficiently and accomplish more with less. "We haven't lost sight of our basic mission: to serve and protect the citizens of Los Angeles. Crime is the top priority, and we've done a good job of battling it," he says.

Yet whether the LAPD's chief and top administrators—including Gascon—can guide the department into the future while regaining the glory of the past remains a giant question mark. Whether the department is successful in beefing up training, instituting tougher disciplinary procedures and revamping the performance evaluation process to help weed out the Mark Fuhrmans in the force is anyone's guess. The LAPD's problems probably aren't as bleak as some would suggest, and its future certainly isn't as dim, but the road ahead requires deft leadership and HR skills. It requires a change from a reactive mindset to a proactive approach.

"We've had some problems and made some mistakes," says Personnel Director Schatz. "But we're now making major strides. Despite all the negative publicity and controversy, the LAPD is still considered one of the best police departments in the nation." Adds Gascon in a matter-of-fact tone: "There are a lot of challenges ahead, but we'll tackle them."

Personnel Journal, April 1996, Vol. 75, No. 4, pp. 98-104.

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