Toppling Pyramids

THE HERCULEAN JOB OF TRANSFORMING the Los Angeles Police Department took one more small step forward when the LAPD’s top-level cops got together last month for their three-day Staff Officers Annual Retreat at the Mandalay Beach Resort, within sight of the ocean in Oxnard. (The retreat is called “SOAR” for short. The department sure loves its acronyms.)

At past retreats, the three-day getaway served mostly as an opportunity for the chief and his inner circle to hand down proclamations regarding the upcoming year’s policies. Such information was typically imparted to the command officers one step down on the department’s food chain — deputy chiefs, commanders and captains — in the manner of stone tablets delivered by gods who brooked no objection and little discussion.

This year, however, officers show up to find that the flow of information is no longer a one-way street but rather a speedy two-lane interstate. In fact, Chief Bratton doesn’t even talk at all for the first two days of the retreat, and then only for about 20 minutes on the last day, right before everybody packs to go home. The rest of the time, he sits in the back row of the large meeting room, sporting an LAPD-embroidered golf shirt, energetically taking notes. Meanwhile his three assistant chiefs — Jim McDonnell, George Gascon and Sharon Papa — quickly outline various new strategies that are being considered, then open the floor for discussion and brainstorming.

“You have to understand how big a deal this is,” says Captain Sergio Diaz, head of the LAPD’s recruit-training academy. “In the past it was groupthink. There was certainly no brainstorming. And God forbid you should come up with an idea that was heretical to that of the chief’s.”

No such prohibitions now. In fact, by day three it becomes clear that the most grievous sin at this year’s conference is not that of offering up some whacked-out, obviously impractical proposal, or an opinion contra to the new chief’s philosophy. The big-time transgression in the Bratton-run LAPD is to put forth no ideas at all.

Another difference between this retreat and any previous ones is that outsiders were allowed, including folks from the City Attorney’s Office, the Police Commission and the Police Protective League — who were not only invited but were asked to give a presentation. “That was just unheard of,” says one officer. “I mean, in past years, the PPL was pretty much looked on as the Antichrist.”

To provide a context for the retreat, day one consists primarily of reports — most of which are presented by the dozen or so Bratton-hired consultants who talk on issues ranging from detective operations to COMPSTAT, the new computerized crime-tracking technology that the chief is about to launch. Starting on day two and continuing into the next, the most controversial subject hits the floor — namely a plan for reforming the department’s organizational structure.

Admittedly, for those of us not working in law enforcement, the notion of rejiggering the LAPD’s organizational chart might not appear, at first, to be a topic of the profoundest import. But here’s the deal: For the past 10 years, two repeating themes have run through any conversation about what it will take to reform the LAPD. The first is the establishment of a system of community policing. The second is the need to dump the thin-blue-line, us-versus-them way of thinking that has dominated the culture of the department for the past 50 years.

In many respects, these two objectives are interwoven. True community policing requires a structure that allows officers to get to know the citizens they are protecting — and, when necessary, arresting. This knowledge, in turn, begins to thaw the most troubling aspects of police culture, simply because cops who get to know community members are less likely to perceive them as unruly potential criminals needing to be controlled from a position of remove. (And, by the same token, community members who get to know their cops no longer see them as part of an angry blue army looking for any excuse to brutalize.) “It’s very easy to dehumanize someone that you have very little contact with,” Assistant Chief George Gascon said on the subject a few months ago. “It’s much harder to do that if you get to know them.”

Yet to successfully create a system of community policing, certain organizational changes are also necessary. For example, rather than requiring officers to bounce quickly from division to division in order to be promoted, officers must be given incentives to remain in one place so that they have time to get to know a community. Moreover, patrol officers — the men and women who have the most actual dealings with the public they serve — need to be adequately rewarded; otherwise, the department’s best and brightest will continue to flee patrol the first chance they get. But for any of this to work, the department’s top-heavy decision-making structure will also have to be flipped on its head. None of these changes are simple. And the only change on the table at Oxnard is the last one.

It seems that under the reigns of the earlier control-happy chiefs, LAPD centralization reached its unwieldy zenith to the point that nearly all the big decisions directly affecting the department’s 18 divisions were no longer being made by the officers working in those divisions. Instead, the primary decision-making powers were held by four deputy chiefs who, from the high-rise confines of Parker Center, ran the four bureaus into which the entire city of Los Angeles was divided: South, Central, Valley and West. In other words, although most of us assume that our local police station — be it Devonshire, Hollywood, Wilshire or Pacific — is responsible for the policing in our area, that was not the department’s orientation. Rather, it was that all responsibility flowed from downtown, and only downtown.

“What this meant,” explains Sergio Diaz, “[was] that if there was a competition between Mrs. Sanchez’s concerns in the community and the deputy chief’s concerns to make sure some reports were turned in on time, the reports won out. And that’s not how it should be. We also acted as if we believed that one size fits all,” continues Diaz, “that the solutions that work for San Pedro would also work well in North Hills. And that’s silly.”

With this in mind, Bratton’s assistant chiefs lay out broad strokes for a new plan that returns a substantial amount of horsepower to the 18 divisions. “In the past,” notes Assistant Chief Sharon Papa, “when you were working at the station level, you got the feeling that you weren’t really trusted.”

“Yeah, we’ve got to do away with the micromanaging,” yells someone from the floor.

“We’re choking the talent out of our people,” adds a commander. “We’ve got to give our division command staff room to fail.”

A deputy chief grouses that maybe things ought to stay the way they are, that otherwise serious mistakes are likely to be made. “I think we have to start trusting our captains,” Gascon responds pleasantly, “and leave ourselves time to look at the bigger picture.”

But what if some captains can’t be trusted? someone wants to know.

“Maybe those captains need to be replaced,” answers Gascon. This is not an idle suggestion. During the first year of Bratton’s NYPD tenure, 75 percent of his precinct commanders were, in fact, replaced.

Finally, the discussion winds down, and Bratton himself strolls to the microphone. “I’m coming up on the magic 100 days as chief,” he says, “and I still have a big learning curve, I’m the first to admit it. But I want you to know, I sleep very soundly because I have a lot of confidence and faith in you,” Bratton says. “I’ve succeeded because I’ve never let the bastards get me down,” he adds. “So if I’m the bastard in your life, don’t let me get you down.”

A commander raises his hand. “Some of us have been waiting for 10 or 15 years for this — to bring up ideas and have somebody listen,” he says. Bratton likes this.

“From what I understand,” he replies, “some of you have been waiting 25 years for somebody to listen.”

A few more questions and answers, and the retreat is over. The steps taken in Oxnard will need another few weeks to rethink and finalize. In the meantime, there are a lot of officers still embedded in the department who are like the guy who let slip to me a month ago that he wished the force could return to the days when “We were allowed to, you know, beat up gangbangers.”

Yet, among command staff a new wind is already blowing. Following his return from Oxnard, one high-ranking officer calls a well-known community worker with whom law enforcement had previously been at odds. “I’ve always admired your work,” confides the cop, “but I knew if I’d contacted you before, I’d have been criticized.”

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