By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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By Dennis Romero
The consent decree was in essence a plea bargain in which the Justice Department -- which had been investigating the LAPD for excessive-force violations even before the Rampart scandal broke -- agreed not to pursue a civil-rights lawsuit against the city, as long as the department solemnly promised to make certain changes.
Then-Chief Bernard Parks strenuously opposed the consent decree. But Gascon saw the mandated reforms as an opportunity. Many of the adjustments the feds required fell under the banner of the Training Group, and he correctly surmised that, in designing programs to comply with the consent decree, one might also be able to slip in some other more creative projects without threatening the control-crazy command staff at Parker Center. With this idea in mind, he brought his friend Diaz over to help him.
REFORMING THE LAPD, SOMEONE ONCE WROTE, IS like trying to alter the course of a supertanker: It takes time and a tremendous amount of pressure to get the thing to turn even a few degrees in any new direction. In George Gascon's case, one of his first small attempts to turn the tanker came in the unassuming form of an ethics training manual.
The reforms mandated by the consent decree that applied to the Training Group consisted mainly of the mandate for new and better classes in such areas as cultural diversity, Fourth Amendment rights, reporting misconduct, and the notoriously squishy realm known as ethics. ä Gascon couldhave merely instituted a string of lecture-driven classes in the categories that the feds demanded, thereby satisfying the requirements of the consent decree without a whole lot of effort. Yet he saw the mandate as a rare opening to inculcate in the troops "a greater ethical understanding of what it means to be a police officer, so people start knowing how to look at the implications of their actions, one, two or three steps down the line from the immediate event." Obviously a pile of retreaded lectures couldn't do that. On the other hand, he thought that some kind of new interactive, problem-based curriculum might at least have a shot at actually changing a few hearts and minds.
There was only one problem: Designing a snazzy new curriculum costs money. And although Bernard Parks was throwing gobs of cash at such department entities as his newly created "Risk Management Group," he declined to allocate any budget at all for Gascon's required training courses. But by fortuitous coincidence, Gascon discovered the existence of a grant that had originally been funded to research community-policing strategies, a project that had, for one reason or another, hopelessly lost focus.
Gascon quickly retooled the project as an ethics-curriculum study, then located an East Coast professor who had previously designed a pilot program on ethical dilemmas for a police department in Massachusetts, and asked the guy to redraft the thing for the LAPD. The result was a state-of-the-art syllabus that created exercises and discussion points around 50 or so basic areas of police functions, from "Arrests and Processing Detainees" through to "Vehicle Thefts."
The project satisfied a pet vision of Gascon's, who had for years wanted some dynamic way to weave ethics discussions through the fabric of all police training, "so we understand why we should be protectors of civil rights, not the violatorsof civil rights." Gascon initially tried the strategy in a continuing-education class dealing with the subject of firearms, taking a cluster of the ethics lessons and jamming them into conventional shooting scenarios. At first, says Gascon, the startled firearms instructors were appalled. "They kept saying, 'Hey, we don't teach ethics. That comes from the other guy across the hallway, the one in the three-piece suit. We're the guys who fire guns.'" But Gascon persisted.
The ethics project also provided a direction for a slew of courses Gascon wanted to design on other topics. Within short order, the Training Group had an entire problem-based learning curriculum up and running -- complete with scenarios, selected video clips and facilitated discussions. Now, every officer in the department could take eight hours of this new training every 14 weeks. Gascon and his team had performed a minor miracle under the nose of Bernie Parks -- producing 300,000 new training hours without a budget.
Enthusiasm for the classes, however, while growing with each presentation, was something less than overwhelming. In part, this was due to the entrenchment of old ideas, say Gascon's trainers, but it may have an equal amount to do with the fact that the department's overall morale was, and still remains, in the toilet. "And unhappy people are typically resistant to learning new things," says Sergeant Sayre.
Since 1999, when the Rampart scandal was cresting, so many officers fled the LAPD to work for friendlier agencies that even official figures tally the department as now being down by 1,000. Unofficial counts leaked by various department insiders suggest that inner-city divisions like Hollenbeck, 77th and Newton, which normally operate with a baseline of 150 uniformed police, are now trying to get by with a little more than half that number. Added to this is a Bernard Parks-instituted post-Rampart complaint system that says an officer blamed for stealing a woman's soul with voodoo (I'm not kidding about this, I've interviewed the officer) must be investigated with the same vigor, and at the same dollar cost to the taxpayer, as a cop accused of a bad shooting.