By Hillel Aron
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By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
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"Does anybody know what the 'Rampart way' was?" Murphy asks.
"They thought they were so busy fighting crime that they didn't have time to do things the 'right way'!" answers the class.
Sergeant Michael Sayre, who heads up the West Point program, explains that the difference between the WPLP officers' reaction to Rampart versus the rank and file's reaction is emblematic of a new type of progressive philosophy espoused by a handful of senior officers who seek to transform the LAPD's culture to better match the needs of the city it serves -- all the while raising the morale of the cops working the streets, whose combined mood these days, many say, often resembles clinical depression. Since none of these forward-thinking officers is part of the ruling cliques at Parker Center, the changes Sayre talks about have only occurred in pockets and at edges. At the LAPD's Training Group, this spirit of innovation is most effectively embodied in the person of its leader, Commander George Gascon.
"See, law enforcement is almost like a calling," says Sayre. "The best people in the department believe in it heart and soul, and they want it to work. But when it doesn't work, a lot of them won't admit it, because one of the things the LAPD doesn't allow for is mistakes. It's part of the paramilitary mentality. We also don't like change. But Commander Gascon understands that police departments need to change to meet those needs of the changing community, and the only way we can grow and learn is by making mistakes. The leadership program takes Rampart and gives the class members the tools to analyze it in a constructive way. So rather than feeling defeated, at the end of it, the officers feel empowered." Sayre sighs. "Now all we need is a chief of police who can regenerate and re-energize the rest of the department. Then the receptiveness to this kind of training is going to multiply."
AS A REPORTER WRITING ABOUT STREET GANGS FOR the last decade, I have long believed that the LAPD doesn't understand its own problems, and as a consequence, I've been extremely skeptical about the department's ability to reform itself. Yet those few hours in Murphy's class made me question whether I was viewing the LAPD through too cynical a lens. Now, after two months of on-the-ground reporting, I've discovered that Sayre may be right; the Los Angeles Police Department has within its ranks some key men and women who have spent more and better time analyzing the department's failings and what to do about them than have the majority of its most adamant critics.
These jarring conclusions come at a crucial juncture in the city's history where undiluted censure of our police force -- combined with the actions of a chief who for the past two years declared open war on his department -- has gone past the point of benefit, to an effect that is beginning to resemble damage. And a seriously damaged LAPD is something Los Angeles cannot afford.
Much of what is right about today's LAPD can be found in the department's Training Group. This is a hopeful sign; if our city's police force is ever to truly lose its us-against-them mentality, much of the transformation will of necessity originate with training. Of course, the bad news is: Training alone is not enough. It is also bad news that the people on the force who seem to see the LAPD clearly -- recognizing both its sizable faults and its immense strengths -- have never held enough power to substantively influence the department's overall direction.
Yet, with the selection of a new police chief now at hand, possibly -- just possibly -- all this could finally change.
RIGHT NOW, TWO PEOPLE CALL THE SHOTS AT THE Training Group: George Gascon and the head of the Police Academy, Captain Sergio Diaz. It's important to note that Gascon and Diaz are not the only forward-thinkers at the LAPD. They are, however, symbolic of an embryonic change currently developing in certain LAPD quarters. They are also men on a mission.
Both born in Cuba, Gascon and Diaz have been best friends since they met at South Gate High School when they were each 13 years old. Diaz joined the LAPD in 1977, following college graduation. Gascon joined the next year at Diaz's urging. Since that time, each man has had a solid career in the department. Diaz's has been the steadier, slower rise of the two, with time spent in Narcotics and in Internal Affairs, most recently as chief investigator. Gascon left the department in order to get a law degree and make a brief foray into the business world. He returned in 1987 and surged up the promotions ladder fast, going from sergeant to commander in 11 years.
Gascon was appointed to head up the Training Group in the worst of times -- April of 2000, while the department was shell-shocked and reeling from the Rampart scandal. Five months into his tenure, the Los Angeles City Council voted 10 to 2 to accept a consent decree allowing the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee and monitor long-stalled reforms within the LAPD.