WHEN THE OSCAR JOEL BRYANT Foundation emerged in 1968, the need for a fraternity of African-American police officers within the LAPD and law enforcement in general was painfully clear. Squad cars and patrol beats were segregated, racist attitudes and behavior tolerated if not downright encouraged, promotions of blacks to command posts almost nil. The foundation, named for the first black LAPD officer believed to have died in the line of duty that same year, was conceived as a countervailing force to the highly unequal treatment that had too long defined L.A.'s finest and given the force much of its historical racist taint. Modeled on the many black activist and advocacy groups that cropped up in the late '60s, OJB made the working conditions of members its own cause; it was not a union, but something quite opposite — an antidote to the LAPD's Police Protective League, a union that for years was dominated by the very good old boys who were the core of the race problem that gave rise to the foundation, and who assiduously kept blacks off its board. Even in the best of times the league could hardly be trusted to represent the interests of all.

Some 35 years later, like many other black outfits that got their impetus and forged their agendas during the civil rights era, the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation is in something of a directional crisis. Working conditions since 1968 have in some ways improved vastly: 20 percent of the LAPD's commanders are black, along with 12.6 percent of its highest-ranking lieutenants. The percentage of black officers on the force — about 13 percent — accurately reflects the number of black people in the city that it serves. The last two L.A. police chiefs have been its first black ones, and the second was championed by a white Republican mayor. But many argue that progress at the top, however impressive, is too often symbolic, and that it hasn't trickled down to the roughly 1,200 black rank and file who still observe — and often absorb — institutional racism on a daily basis.

This ranges from the usual epithets to things far subtler and more subjective — for example, a white officer getting disciplined for the same action as a black officer, but not to the same degree. To further complicate the picture, out in the real world policing remains the most racially charged line of work around. In a post-riot, post-O.J., not-quite-post-racial-profiling Los Angeles that seems to witness at least one police-brutality incident a year involving a black suspect, African-American officers are more aware than ever of the potentially inherent contradiction between their race and their profession.

Such are the questions that the workaday Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, despite its founding mission of racial equity, was never set up to answer. And in the age of workplace diversity and the scuttling of affirmative action in some parts of the public sector, that mission struggles to stay relevant; the guy who's loudly re-invoked it in recent years has found himself alone at best, rebuffed by his own membership at worst. “I deal with race in an open forum, but people don't want to hear this kind of truth anymore,” says OJB president Sergeant Ronnie Cato, a longtime department gadfly. “Why is it that blacks still work mostly in black areas, like South and Southwest? Why is it they're used in only five out of 18 divisions? When I talk about white supremacy, I'm not talking about a specific person. I'm talking about a system.”

CATO, A 47-YEAR-OLD SERGEANT IN the Southwest Traffic Division, is regarded as something of a loose cannon who's been responsible for much of the ink the foundation has gotten over the last five years or so. Talking to him, it's clear that his zeal for improving work conditions for black officers extends to the whole unresolved business of blacks gaining level playing fields and equal access; he asserts more than once that “my base is not my job, but my integrity. I believe in the ultimate authority of justice.” Such a stance is somewhat ironic considering that police officers, thanks to a culture that stresses cop solidarity over all else, are the least likely of black civil servants to publicly address racial divisions — the OJB, after all, was one of several groups that stood behind Chief Daryl Gates in 1991 after the Rodney King tape appeared. Cato doesn't apologize for that, though he does criticize past OJB leadership as being too conciliatory and soft on race issues. But he says he understands it perfectly. “Look, the fear of discovery if you complain, the fear for job security on the force, is great,” he says. “Everybody agrees with my positions privately, but they don't want to make it public. They won't say anything, but they'll call me on the phone to congratulate me.”

That's hard to prove, but one high-ranking OJB member was willing to say publicly — albeit diplomatically — that Cato is doing more grandstanding than groundwork. “Some of OJB's leaders have been aggressive, and in one case overbearing,” says Maurice Moore, a 40-year LAPD veteran and recently retired deputy chief. “He tried to use the muscle of leadership to further his own causes and own self-interest. OJB has done some great things for black officers over the years. But when you operate on sheer emotion instead of analysis, that's a problem. What I don't like are threats and intimidations made to other people emanating from OJB, the pressure to make demands that obviously aren't the sentiment of the rank and file.”

Cato brought these sharp divisions within OJB to the surface back in 1997, the last time the city was preparing to hire a new police chief. Then, as vice president of OJB, he wrote an open letter to the Police Commission criticizing then­Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker, who was then — as now — a leading candidate for chief, and a popular commander of the South Bureau who supported community policing and other programs considered key to black constituents. Cato accused Kroeker, who is white, of not properly disciplining white officers who mistreat black officers, and of limiting the number of minority officers on his staff (Cato once worked under Kroeker, and was disciplined for mishandling confidential information). Then-Mayor Richard Riordan promptly called Cato racist, Kroeker denied the allegations and threatened a defamation lawsuit, and then­OJB President Sergeant Leonard Ross and six other members, including police-chief hopeful Bernard Parks, formally distanced themselves and the organization from Cato's comments, which they declared “divisive and counterproductive.”

This time out the foundation is not supporting Kroeker, currently Portland's police chief, but rather LAPD Commander George Gascon, which is a sign of Cato's distaste for Kroeker but also of changing demographic times: Latinos (Gascon is of Cuban descent) make up a full third of LAPD rank and file, and with race still an issue, the OJB has had to broaden its outlook. Despite the Kroeker fallout five years ago, Cato and the OJB supported Parks right up through the bitter, unsuccessful campaign to save his job earlier this year. Not that the foundation felt Parks was perfect, not by a long shot.

“A lot of black officers didn't support him,” Cato says bluntly. “Black officers were already getting unfairly disciplined, and actually Parks made it worse. He signed off on increased disciplinary measures. He allowed officers to be fired, and let go. Members were very upset.” But, Cato adds by way of explanation, “There were more minorities promoted under Parks than had ever been promoted in the history of the LAPD. It all depended on where you were, whether you were rank and file, or whether you were on the verge of being promoted higher.” In the end, Cato says, it was better to have had Parks than not; after all, the former chief was practically a founding member of OJB. “I don't agree with everything he did or said,” Cato says. “But then, I don't agree all the time with my wife. It's like family.”

What we have, then, is one fractured family operating within a bigger one of the LAPD itself, though the onus of racial reform still lies with both, for different reasons. Former OJB president Joseph Rouzan III says it was just 13 years ago that he was one of only two black detectives at the West L.A. station, and not much longer ago than that he was forced to hear racial slurs his first days on patrol with a partner who failed to realize he was black. “The internal process had to be cleaned up,” Rouzan says of the Parks legacy. “But just because you have a black chief doesn't mean that all the rednecks left.”

LA Weekly