IT USED TO BE A SOCIAL CLUB FOR MEN in blue, a place to down a few beers and to chitchat about cop lore. When it came down to business, the organization seemed to be a rubber-stamp committee for the police chief.
Now, the Latin American Law Enforcement Association no longer wants to party. It wants to make sure the next chief of the Los Angeles Police Department is a Latino. "Why shouldn't we ask for a Latino chief?" asks Art Placencia, the outspoken 34-year LAPD veteran and association president. "One thing you can say of Chief Parks is that he took care of his own. Why shouldn't a Latino chief do the same for his?" Placencia has reason to be confident, with several Latinos among the finalists for the job.
Known as "La Ley" (Spanish for "The Law"), the 600-member Latino fraternity has some experience in getting what it wants. It played a key role in fighting for a 1992 consent decree that requires the LAPD to promote minorities. The decree grew out of a 1988 complaint alleging that promotions practices made it hard for minorities to advance above the rank of sergeant. La Ley filed the lawsuit along with John W. Hunter, an African-American officer, and an Asian-American officers' group, the Law Enforcement Association of Asian Pacifics.
Ten years later, more work remains to be done. Placencia says Latinos account for less than 2 percent of the commanders and higher-ranking officers, even though one-third of the department's roster is Latino, as is half of L.A.'s population. Of the LAPD's 246 lieutenants, 36 are Latino. He says the LAPD needs to get serious about promoting a supervisory cross-training program and funding a learning center to help Latinos and others study for brass exams.
The son of immigrant parents from Mexico, the 55-year-old Placencia grew up in Boyle Heights and joined the LAPD in 1968, a year after La Ley was formed. A brawny man with a long mustache and a shaved head, he joined the force straight out of high school, inspired by a billboard ad. He now oversees burglary detectives at the Wilshire Station.
Placencia was elected president the first of this year and rented an office from the police union on Eighth Street to help build a higher profile for La Ley. "I didn't like the way La Ley was going. I felt that at that time the board of directors were giving the store away," Placencia says. "There were things that needed to be done for Latinos and they weren't doing them."
Relaxing in the placid yard of his Fontana home a few days after a mild heart attack earlier this summer, Placencia says the LAPD remains one of the best employers for Latinos. "I want it to be a better place for kids in the barrios as well as for everybody else. Just as it has been good to me."
Just how successful La Ley's lobbying for a Latino chief will be is anyone's guess. Edith Perez, the former Police Commission president who played a role in selecting Bernard Parks, says she is not sure La Ley has the numbers or the political muscle. "You have to really wonder, what does it all translate to? It's nice to hear from people, but I doubt that at the end it's going to carry the day."
Placencia readily admits that La Ley still has a way to go before becoming a potent force. But there are signs that Latino officers' traditional reluctance to get involved in department politics may be easing. La Ley opposed a second term for Bernard Parks -- and along the way picked a fight with the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, the LAPD fraternity with mostly African-American members. La Ley supported Parks' ouster because of his exceedingly authoritarian leadership style.
Oscar Joel Bryant president Ronnie Cato says the reason La Ley wanted Parks out was to make way for a Latino chief. Placencia counters that Cato wanted Parks to remain because he is African-American: "So what's the difference here?"
FOR RUDY DeLEON, LA LEY HAS COME a long way since he and three other LAPD officers started it in 1967. DeLeon had already been on the force for two decades, having joined after coming home from World War II. Those days were tough. In the mid-1940s, the LAPD had fewer than 100 Latino officers. They often faced discrimination themselves and witnessed officers mistreating others in the streets. Back then, being an undocumented worker was a felony, and some officers made the arrests with a special enthusiasm.
But things began to change when Chief William H. Parker came along in 1950, DeLeon says. For the first time in history, several LAPD officers were convicted of excessive force after they got drunk and beat seven Latino prisoners in the city's central jail. The skirmish, which happened in the predawn hours of Christmas 1951, was loosely depicted in the film L.A. Confidential and became known as "Bloody Christmas."
It wasn't until the 1965 Watts riots that he and several others decided to form La Ley. Their first honorary member was Chief Ed Davis. "Since the beginning we wanted La Ley to be inclusive," said DeLeon, 78, whose parents came here from Mexico.
La Ley met every two months at the Police Academy, where it still holds its meetings. Members still pay only $2.50 every two weeks, which is deducted from their paychecks. La Ley's aim was -- as it is today -- to help Latino officers move up the ranks. To this day, La Ley still grants scholarships to officers and to youths -- often from the Explorer program -- for study in law enforcement or other fields.
Somewhat of a legend in the LAPD, DeLeon became the captain of the Boyle Heights Hollenbeck Station in January 1971, the first Latino ever to head a station. People in the barrios often called him El Jefe (The Chief). He says he would be proud if someone like LAPD Commander George Gascon, who is a member of La Ley, was named chief. "Now we have very good Latino candidates who can compete with other very talented candidates for chief," DeLeon says. "Who knows what can happen?"