Rewriting the Book 

Commander George Gascon and Captain Sergio Diaz attempt a revolution from within

Wednesday, Sep 4 2002
Photos by Anne Fishbein

IT IS WEDNESDAY, JULY 10, THE LAST DAY OF THE Los Angeles Police Department's West Point Leadership Program. Twenty-two officers are crammed into a small, overbright classroom near the back of the old Elysian Park Police Academy. Some of the officers are high-ranking law-enforcement types from elsewhere in the state. Police chiefs from the Modesto, Sacramento and Chico police departments are here, as is a beefy and muscular San Bernardino County deputy sheriff. But most taking the five-week, 136-hour course are from the LAPD.

The West Point Leadership Program (WPLP) is based on courses at the U.S. Military Academy. It was created by the LAPD during the mid-1990s in the wake of Rodney King and the Christopher Commission, and, short of the seven months of recruit training, it is the department's most famous and rigorous course. Despite its soldierly provenance, the WPLP teaches theories based not on the strategies of Norman Schwarzkopf, but on behavioral psychology and Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs"; the intellectual underpinnings borrow more from Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jack Welch than from George S. Patton. On the very last day of the program, the class gets a chance to apply these principles to a contemporary law-enforcement case study. However, the situation outlined for the class members' benefit is no run-of-the-mill case study: Today every one of the 19 men and three women in the room listens with unblinking attention as, for two hours straight, Lt. Bill Murphy lays out in unsparing and vivid detail what really went wrong at the Rampart Division.

Murphy is a slender, fine-featured man in his early 40s who looks more like an English-lit professor than a cop, even though he's walked patrol in five separate Los Angeles precincts, including several years at Rampart. He is the officer in charge of the department section -- which means all of the courses mandated by the recent U.S. Justice Department consent decree as well as a long list of specialized programs. He is also the co-author of a significant section of the Board of Inquiry report (the LAPD's own analysis of the scandal, published at telephone-book length in March of 2000). This last is part of the reason Murphy is the one who leads the Rampart class. Even now, more than three years after the fact, many in Southern California law enforcement would like to pretend the scandal never happened. But no officer in this room would dream of challenging Murphy. It's utterly obvious to everyone here that he knows this shit cold.

Lt. Bill Murphy: Teaching
the turmoils of Rampart

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Repeatedly, Murphy analyzes the elements of corruption both large and minute with the cheerfully neutral eye of a football coach scrutinizing films from another team's disastrous game. He outlines the way Rampart officers felt themselves exempt from department policies, verbally deconstructs the station's "gunslinger mentality," and teases out the psychological implications behind the Rampart "artifacts": the ganglike tattoos and the medieval fortress painted in mural size on the station-house wall, the tires slashed and the locks changed by anti-gang CRASH officers to intimidate new supervisors who didn't "get it."

If you closed your eyes, you almost could mistake Murphy for a visiting lecturer from the ACLU -- the kind of guy who wouldn't have made it alive past the academy door just a few years ago. Yet this isn't a rant or a mea culpa, it's a systematic investigation in which Murphy charts such phenomena as the unchecked rise of "charismatic midlevel leaders" who "should have been on the LAPD in the 1940s, because their motto was 'Let's stop crime no matter how we do it.' It was 'any means to an end, even if we're crossing the legal line -- it's justified because we're going to clean up the streets.'" Murphy also lists the myriad ways that command staff was complicit. "For example, all these dope arrests should have sent up a red flag," he says. "But management didn't question the arrests, because the community liked it, and management liked the numbers."

And, although the presentation covers Rampart specifically, over and over Murphy reminds the class that what he calls "erosive and corrosive behavior" was not narrow-cast. "This scandal didn't happen overnight," he says. "And it wasn't limited to one person or two people. And it wasn't limited to Rampart."

This unexpected spectacle of an LAPD lieutenant openly owning up to departmental wrongs in a manner that goes beyond anything else the force has done publicly is fascinating. Yet the truly riveting aspect of Murphy's performance is the response of the class members. Even now, if you walk into any division in the LAPD and ask the officers about Rampart, most will wince and begin muttering something about "a few bad apples."

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