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Rewriting the Book

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


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."

 

Yet the class absorbs Murphy's presentation virtually as gospel, then sifts it for further meaning with a collective critical eye, freely shouting back responses to his questions with the born-again enthusiasm of a Baptist congregation.

"Okay, what type of officers end up at a division like Rampart?" asks Murphy.

"Hotshots!" shout the class members. "Young guys who want to go where the excitement's at!" "Cowboys!"

"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.

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 could have 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 violators of 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.

As a result, a department that was once gonzo-to-the-max has become so jumpy that it frequently engages in no proactive enforcement at all -- particularly in the poorer areas of town. (This is precisely, officers claim, why the city's murder rate is spiking.)

George Gascon's take on the morale issue is both straightforward and heretical. "Our organization is very arrogant," he says. "Not only externally, but internally. Among other effects, this arrogance has made us so rank-conscious that, even though we have extremely talented people at the officer and detective level, we don't pay attention to them. I equate this to the American versus the Japanese way of making cars in the 1970s. If you were working at a Toyota assembly line and you noticed a defect coming through in line, even if you were the lowest-level person in the company, you had the authority to bring everything to a halt until that item was fixed. But on an American assembly line in those days, the thought was, 'Time is money,' so if you noticed a defect you looked the other way, because you had no authority." And as anybody who's read even one best-seller about successful management knows, the authority-poor workers had much lower morale than those who felt trusted and valued.

"So to translate that concept into policing," continues Gascon, "if we give the patrol officers and others who are delivering services day to day room to be creative ä within the law, then I guarantee morale will start to soar. That's one more thing we need to do in this department, give permission to self-actualize."

If self-actualization for law enforcement may strike hardliners as a tad touchy-feely, Gascon insists that it's time the hierarchy was humanized. "An organizational culture," he says, "whether a police culture or a corporate culture, isn't something that you can throw a switch and bam, it's brand new -- especially a culture that is as insular as the LAPD has been for many years. Yet there are certain messages that an organization sends to its people that make a difference. That's what we're trying to do here."

IT WASN'T UNTIL JANUARY OF 2001, nearly a year after his own appointment, that Gascon was able to bring his friend Sergio Diaz over to the Training Group. By that time, in-service classes were doing well enough that attention could be turned to the academy -- the core-level incubator and citadel of LAPD's internal culture.

Nearly from its inception in 1936, the Los Angeles Police Academy has been militaristic in its training. After World War II, then-Chief Bill Parker brought in Marine drill instructors to teach. In the years that followed, recruit training became increasingly martial, emphasizing physical strength and tactics, intimidating recruits into submission, paying little if any attention to human relations. Occasionally some command staff member tried to fiddle with the model, only to find a wall of intransigence. Then, enter Sergio Diaz.

 

A short, compact 47-year-old guy, Diaz wears his department sidearm throughout the business day, cuts the lunch he's brought from home with a 5-inch elk-horn-handled buck knife and names Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning as the book that influenced him most. Diaz is the common-sense doppelgänger for Gascon, the idea man.

"The LAPD probably has the best training program in the world within the conventional mode," Diaz says as we tour the grounds of the new four-story, glass-and- cement Ahmanson Recruit Training Center in Westchester. "We select the most physically fit young people and teach them to shoot, drive a car fast, go over a wall and run a few blocks, put a lock on a person's arm, look good in a uniform and be polite," says Diaz. "And all that's great. But in today's world, our recruits need a more complex combination of qualities. Among other things, they need to know their own emotions and their own buttons. The last thing in the world we need is police who are not self-aware. We see where that has gotten us. We need somebody who can appreciate the shades of gray."

In the black-and-white paramilitary world of the LAPD, the very concept of gray has traditionally been sacrilege. "But here's the thing," Diaz says. "We're not the military. We treat our recruits in a rigid way, and yet we expect them to be humanistic and even innovative. In other words, we're giving our recruits a mixed message. And frankly, this double-message issue permeates the department at all levels. It's exactly what allowed officers to do the things that got us this consent decree.

"On the other hand," Diaz says, "we're not training people to be UPS drivers. We're preparing them for a job where they may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice. But, at age 47, I can tell you that it's wise to lead your life acting as if everyone else is a human being. And that's what we have to teach our recruits -- to act as if everyone is an important human being with real complications in their lives, real temptations, real desires to do the right thing, real problems."


Captain Sergio Diaz: He
and Gascon 'Just a couple
of jokers'


To this end, Diaz has already added a lot of problem-based, critical-thinking-oriented classes, but it's nowhere near enough, he says: "The Canadian Mounted Police have an academy that is entirely scenario-based." The idea is to create critical thinkers, not just tactical experts, people who can not only shoot a gun brilliantly but who also know when to shoot the damn thing -- and more important, when not to. "When recruits graduate from the RCMP they are more able to make mature, independent, humanistic judgments than recruits from elsewhere." The mark he'd like to leave on the academy, says Diaz, is to move it as close to that model as humanly possible.

"Of course, training all by itself isn't going to solve everything," says Diaz. "It has to be part of a bigger system. The hope is that there would be an alignment throughout the department where everyone understood what's important -- which is the best possible delivery of police services to the public. We all say in our platitudes and our management principles that we work for the public, but we haven't always behaved as if we mean it."

When it's time for me to leave, Diaz walks me out to the academy's parking lot. On the way, we pass two female cadets who stand straight and still in the blinding midday sunshine, although the training officer who has commanded them to this position is nowhere to be seen.

Diaz glances at the immobilized cadets briefly and then away. "You know, most of us are good soldiers," he says finally. "We take our cue from the top. So if we're serious about things like community policing, then the leaders of the LAPD have to show by word and deed that they really do want ä to work with the various communities, that they do want to listen to other people, so that the cop on the beat knows that it's okay to open up to a more humanistic approach."

But for that, of course, we would need the one thing that Los Angeles has never had: an enlightened police chief.

WHILE GASCON AND DIAZ HAVE LEFT imprints on training-delivery style, much of the content is still firmly dictated from the top floors of LAPD's Parker Center headquarters, and the chasm between these two perspectives can be unsettling.

 

A perfect example is the case of the roll-call videos, many of which are assigned in response to the newest whim or worry that has grabbed the attention of the Big Brass. Terry Cleary is the person who actually writes the scripts for the 12-to-15-minute training videos that the department turns out every few months for the divisions to use, quite literally, at roll call. Right now Cleary is researching two scripts, one on suicide bombers, the second in response to a new program instituted by Parker Center called RIDS -- Reduction in Dog Shooting (a title suggesting that the LAPD is in dire need of acronym consulting). It seems that too many police officers have been shooting too many civilian dogs. This occurs when, say, an officer hops a fence into somebody's yard while chasing a suspect and encounters a German shepherd defending its territory. "Maybe the thing is planning to take off his leg, or maybe the officer doesn't have much experience with animals, so he panics and shoots the dog," says Cleary. In any case, if a cop caps somebody's pet, there is inevitably a complaint filed. "And our department really doesn't like complaints," says Cleary. Hence RIDS and the video.

"Dog interest groups don't want us to use pepper spray, because that's too cruel," explains Cleary, his tone reeking of cynicism. "I called some Hollywood animal trainers for some tips. They have vials of ammonia attached to the end of a cane that's been wrapped with gauze. If the dog gets ferocious, they smack the cane on the ground, the vial breaks, the ammonia goes into the gauze, they put it under the dog's nose and it runs away. They use it on lions and tigers, too. But that's considered inhumane by . . ."

The dog owners? "Oh, please," says Cleary. "We don't use the term 'owners' anymore. It's 'dog guardians.' Get your terms straight."

When I ask Sergio Diaz about the dog tape, he rolls his eyes. "RIDS," he says. "Did you know we handle the investigation of the dog shooting as if we were investigating a person -- which means it costs easily five grand, maybe more? Of course, we need to stop shooting dogs, but with some things you would just naturally assume there's a body of knowledge. The real question is: Why don't we already have a policy for this? And why is compulsive 'risk reduction' where the LAPD so frequently puts its already stretched resources?"

On my next trip to academy grounds, I stop by a small store that sells police uniforms and other LAPD-related products. In the store's window, three T-shirts are prominently displayed, all with extravagant drawings of buffed-out cops wearing elaborate tactical gear. In one, the SWAT-suited figures clutch a humongous battering ram. Underneath each drawing is a caption: "Showtime," "Knock-knock," and best of all, "We make house calls." Inside, a sales clerk assures me that these shirts are by far the store's biggest sellers, and it occurs to me that Diaz and Gascon's new humanistic LAPD may still be elusive.

THROUGH THE REIGN OF FOUR AUTOcratic chiefs of police -- Bill Parker, Ed Davis, Daryl Gates and Bernard Parks -- the Los Angeles Police Department has traveled in one direction. (Short-timers Tom Reddin and Willie Williams barely even ruffle the water's surface.) Yet certain people like Gascon and Diaz say it's past time for the LAPD supertanker to turn. This is where that mission I mentioned earlier comes into play; George Gascon and Sergio Diaz have an agenda that reaches far beyond simply improving the department's training: Both men want George Gascon to be chief -- or, failing that, to be high up enough on the department's food chain to be able to influence policy on a more fundamental level. And should they get the chance, both men have a long list of ideas of how they'd improve things from the command level on down.

They have ideas for flipping the department's existing power flow so that decision-making is decentralized, creating a sort of LAPD borough system instead of the present structure where each station -- be it 77th, Harbor or the West Valley -- is compulsively micromanaged from downtown. They have ideas about how to institute a new team form of community policing, and how to provide incentives for officers to stay in one area long enough to actually get to know it.

"One of the ways you change an organization," says Gascon, who has officially applied for the job of chief, "is by changing what you reward in that organization. In this organization we have typically rewarded only one kind of person."

 

Gascon even has a plan to lower California's stratospheric prisoner-recidivism rate. It involves partnering with community agencies and groups to help parolees make a successful transition to the straight life. "For years we have kidded ourselves that the solutions to crime were only law-enforcement solutions, and they're not," he says. "I'm a firm believer that long-term solutions to crime are to be found in social issues that law enforcement can't possibly hope to address alone."

Of course, there are other candidates for chief -- Deputy Commander Jim McDonnell and former MTA head Sharon Papa prominent among them -- who also have good ideas. As for whether any of these candidates possesses the strength, luck and vision to turn campaign rhetoric into accomplishment remains in the uncharted future.

I LAST SAW SERGIO DIAZ AT A RECRUIT graduation held on the field of the old Elysian Park academy. After the ceremony was finished, the newly anointed young officers milled on the grass with their families while another of the declared candidates for chief -- Deputy Chief David Kalish -- chatted it up with a radio reporter, and Diaz and I talked. No matter who is chosen to be its new chief, Diaz says, he hopes that one day soon the LAPD will be doing a good enough job with the community on a daily basis that when the inevitable ugly incident occurs, the public will trust that the department will do the right thing. "Because in police work," he says, "no matter how well we train people, no matter how well we monitor their behavior, the incident's going to happen. Somebody's going to shoot the guy with the toy gun. We're always one radio call away from the next crisis."

Diaz admits that the department is still far from such unquestioning community confidence. "But we have to get there." And that will take the right chief, "someone who starts with the right premise," says Diaz. "And the right premise isn't 'I know what's best, and everyone else is an idiot.' We need a chief who doesn't deal with everyone but his friends in a disdainful and condescending way. It's a tough job. But you only make it tougher if you refuse to work with people. For example, it's dumb to pick fights with everyone in the press. That's what this department has done for years. And it always makes us look like we're hiding something."

To Sergio Diaz, of course, George Gascon is the one who can handle it all. "Obviously I'm completely biased, because he's my best friend," he says. "But I believe we approach things pretty altruistically. And we flatter ourselves that we have the right balance of altruism and realism." He shrugs. "But who knows? We're just a couple of jokers."


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