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Rumblings within the ranks (part one)


Once upon a time on the West Coast, the City of Angels boasted a police department reputedly every bit as corrupt and tainted as it’s counterparts back east. Efforts to “clean up” the wayward boys in blue had mixed results, until the mayor appointed a spit and polish Marine Corps General, William A. Worton, as chief in 1949.

He, in turn, groomed his successor, the legendary William H. Parker to complete the transformation. An army veteran, Parker used the Marine model of discipline and esprit de corps to promote the image of the Los Angeles Police Department as the last bastion of defense against the elements of decadence and iniquity lurking in the shadows of 1950s La La Land. A media and public relations master, he preached the idea of a “thin blue line” necessary to buffer the moral decay opposing decent society with the fervor of a religious zealot, before the realities of changing demographics and ethnic diversity began the erosion of his legacy before he died in 1966.

None-the-less, his legacy held sway throughout the administrations of chiefs Thad Brown, Thomas Reddin, Roger Murdock, Ed Davis, Robert Rock, and finally Parker protégé Daryl Gates, who built upon this paramilitary tradition numerous such innovations as SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) to be deployed in situations involving “high risk.”

Now, in an ironic twist of fate, the same paramilitary ethos and “us versus them” mentality that proved so effective in the Parker era may well be the biggest hurdle preventing the LAPD from becoming an effective law enforcement agency for the new millennium.

Out of the past and present police personnel contacted for this article, most out right refused to be interviewed, while others would speak only on condition of anonymity. All in all, the aura of the department transcends its physical boundaries and the population of those on its pay role.

Compton native Ronnie Cato, sits in quiet contentment in retirement, contemplating the check that comes religiously on the 31st of every month. A career African American LAPD officer from 1981 through 2011, he stepped into the academy with a clear understanding of what he was getting into and what he wanted out of it.

“That system wasn’t made for us—but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t take advantage of it,” he says, voicing a sentiment that may just be the key to success for any civil servant.

Considering his contemporaries of color who’ve left the force with bruised egos and hurt feelings, he offers scant sympathy while pointing out they may have joined up expecting to be welcomed with open arms.

“I didn’t think the department was my friend,” he says simply.

With this mindset, he avoided the disappointment endured by many of his peers.

Occupying army?

“Listen homeboy, what you talkin’ about?

You’re mistakin’ my pad for a rock house.

Well, I know to you we all look the same,

but I’m not the one slingin’ ‘caine

— lyrics to “Batterram”

Gates ascension to top cop collided with the proliferation of gang warfare and the up tic of crack cocaine trafficking. His methodology of specialized units like CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) and SWAT initially seemed to be effective (particularly when the city seamlessly hosted the 1984 Olympics), but the saturated “sweeps” arresting scores of young minorities polarized the citizenry he served. This heavy-handed approach thrust him into the lexicon of hip hop culture, as rappers like Ice Cube and Toddy Tee (whose ode to the B-100 armored vehicle used to engage fortified crack houses was immortalized in the above song “Batterram”) took to the airways to voice their dissent.

Gates eventually was toppled by the Rodney King beating, and on its heels, the 1992 riots, which paved the way for his retirement.

Around this period, political scientist Renford Reese in the doctoral program at USC, established a precept that much of the unrest in urban America was rooted in ethnic mistrust. A decade later, as a Cal Poly Pomona professor, he examined the LAPD hierarchy in his 2005 book “Leadership in the LAPD: Walking the Tightrope.” In it, he proposed that each of the department chiefs’ successes and failures centered on their individual ability to balance the population served and the moral of the officers under their command.

The “noble transformer”

“He was the best chief he could be under the circumstances.”

— Retired LAPD Sgt. Cheryl Dorsey sums up the achievements of Willie L. Williams.

Anxious to restore order as the city lay smoldering in Gates’ wake, an outsider and an African American was selected, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams. According to some insiders, he was doomed from the start.

A stout, robust man, Williams attempted to bring in the full-length uniform jackets that are a staple of Eastern United States law enforcement. While this was perhaps a cosmetic issue, it went against the image of the LAPD as a physically rigorous entity eager to hit the streets and potential wrong doers head on. None-the-less, Williams made a sincere effort to reach out.

Retired Sgt. Cato remembers the newcomer being open to all requests for modern equipment  upgrades, as peace officers debated the merits of various handgun calibers, to accessories for specialized tactical units. A sociable sort, he attended meetings with every imaginable demographic within the city. Alas, he failed to win the support of the rank and file, a contingent that Gates enjoyed throughout his tenure.

“The (Police Protective) League wouldn’t let him breath,” Cato remembers.

The Police Protective League, the labor union for officers at the rank of lieutenant and below, was abrasively critical of the newcomer, in a manner that Cato likens to the treatment President Barack Obama received from the Tea Party and other extremists within the Republican ranks.

This included offensive cartoons published in the League’s official magazine “The Thin Blue Line.”

Williams’ additional problems included his own personal lapses in judgment like accepting perks from Las Vegas casinos, testy relationships with then-mayor Richard Riordan and other key municipal bigwigs, and most tellingly, his absence at the funeral of a police officer killed in the line of duty. Still, Williams made significant gains in the hiring of minority and women recruits, and blunted the image of the LAPD as a paramilitary occupational force before the Police Commission refused to renew his contract in 1997.

The consummate insider

Some of Williams’ problems may have stemmed from the presence of the insider he had been hired in place of. Bernard C. Parks’ vocal concerns about the outsiders leadership escalated to the point where Williams demoted Parks from assistant chief (his second in command) to deputy chief. After Williams’ ouster and Parks’ appointment as his successor, command staff who’d aligned themselves with the out-of-towner found themselves cast adrift.

Parks was seen in some corners as a logical successor to Gates, and was visibly disappointed by being passed over when Williams arrived.

In Parks, LAPD finally had a chief befitting its tinsel town image. Besides his matinee idol looks (People magazine named him one of its 50 most beautiful people on the planet in 1998), Parks was an insider who knew the department from the bottom up, had impeccable managerial skills, and had the resolve to set his beloved force on track.

With a persona that came across as arrogant and overbearing, Parks quickly gained a reputation as being inflexible (he did introduce innovations like the nation’s first “cold case” unit for unsolved criminal investigations, and recorded steady drops in crime rates during his tenure). Realizing the need to burnish the department’s image, he went on a spree of brutal correction for officers failing to measure up (firing some 130 employees deemed problematic), and losing the support of the all-important Police Protective League.

By 1997 and 1998, the force was rocked by the Rampart scandal centering in the Pico-Union district. Members of the Rampart Division’s CRASH unit were found to have committed illegal shootings, beatings, robbery, drug trafficking, and perjury, with associated crimes still pending today.

All this, coupled with a disconnect with Mayor James Hahn and the Police Commission led to a decline for his bid for a second five-year term as chief in 2001.

East Coast Politico

The next to take over was another outsider, William J. Bratton, a Bostonian with an impressive resume. Fresh off successes as Police Commissioner in both his native city and New York City, he was a proponent of the “broken windows” theory of criminology in which tolerance of petty mischief like public intoxication and vandalism encourage societal breakdown, and in turn encourages more serious crimes.

Bratton hit the ground running, letting subordinates know he would tolerate no undermining of his agenda, most tellingly, he did advance work before he officially took office, by meeting with key community leaders and anyone with clout who potentially could have an impact on his success. This manifested itself in crime reductions for six consecutive years. In sharp contrast to his predecessors who tangled with the mayors under whom they toiled (Gates with Bradley, Williams with Riordan, and Parks with Hahn) he maintained cordial relations with both Mayors Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa. As a testament to his administrative and political acumen, City Councilman Herb Wesson attempted to amend the city charter to allow him to serve a third term as chief (Bratton resigned before his second term ended to take a private sector job).

Black and blue

Although a minority demographic, African Americans are possibly the group most subjeced to documented in incidents of abuse or brutality, for reasons too lengthy to be covered here.

Racial unrest is not limited outside the department, a fact driven to the forefront in 2013 with the shooting rampage across three southern California counties by disgruntled ex-LAPD officer Christopher Dorner.

Sgt. Wayne Guillary witnessed the Watts Riots/uprising as a child, and vowed to change the system after he joined the department. He worked from Explorer Scout to sworn officer in 1981, and later in his career, recruiting new officers. When he discovered racial slurs regularly appearing in internal documents and complained, he was reprimanded and relegated to menial tasks.

A lawsuit and settlement in 2001 did not end the episodes of racism, which continued throughout his 34-year career. Guillary received a vindication of sorts this August to the tune of a $500,000 settlement.

Against the grain

“I believe that racism is like a toothache … you cannot see it; you cannot touch it, and you may even have difficulty describing it … but when it affects you, when it hits you, you will feel it and you will know it.”

— Peter Whittingham, a current LAPD captain

Scores of employment-related lawsuits saturate the city and county, a goodly portion of them involving peace officers. Attorney Gregory W. Smith has litigated suits involving various law enforcement organs over the past 25 years, some 100 involving the LAPD. In spite of all this, he stands by the professionalism of the LAPD.

But despite his many suits against the LAPD, Smith contends the agency is “the very best.”

This commitment to high standards unfortunately has carried over to situations wherein the department decides to push its agenda, regardless of ethical and moral precepts.

Smith suggests that they are “… more ingenious in getting away with (questionable) stuff.”

Those who complain or otherwise “break ranks” do so at their own peril. This may be common to all large organizations (especially those with a martial or paramilitary slant) which have little tolerance for critics, malcontents, or anyone bold enough to “bite the hand that feeds them.”

Uniformity mandates that all in the collective “speak with one voice” for the good of the organization so as not to “rock the boat.”

If you chose to bad mouth the force—even with a valid complaint, “you’re gonna be punished,” says Smith.

Recently, Smith took up the cause of Captain Bryford “Peter” Whittingham. A careerist who joined the force in 1988 after successful tenure as a cop in his native Jamaica and at USC, he rose through the ranks successfully performing a variety of duties up to his present posting heading up the Criminal Gang Homicide Division.

As part of the department’s Board of Rights (BOR) panel, in which two captains and a civilian sit in judgment of officers who have gone against policy, he took exception to what he felt was overly harsh discipline for an individual brought before the panel.

Those who run afoul of policy and procedures are generally dealt with within their individual division by that unit’s captain. More serious infractions are referred to the BOR, but among department insiders, its generally understood that offenders are sent there with the expectation that they will be fired.

Confidentiality issues mandate that specific details remain confidential, but Whittingham has suggested that the system is overly severe to Black officers earmarked for censorship. He also reasons that there are Black officers who simply don’t bother to apply for specific coveted positions because they know they will not be seriously considered for them.

Vocal in his criticism of the force and its leadership, he says his opinions are shared by colleagues not willing to go public with their gripes.

“Among commanding officers, the time spent in (a particular) rank before upgrades/promotions was significantly longer that Whites and other non-Blacks.”

These concerns led to his 2014 discrimination lawsuit alleging reprisals were directed against him because he would not follow his superior’s directives. In spite of losing the case this past April, Whittingham remains optimistic about his plans to appeal, and is committed to “do the right thing for the right reasons regardless of the consequences.”

“I believe that the jury’s verdict was more influenced by the complicated legal process of the civil proceedings, more so than it reflected a support for, or endorsement of the city’s case,” he says.

“I also believe that the verdict is more akin to justice delayed, rather than justice denied.”

A continuance to this article “Rumblings within the ranks (part 2)” will run in next week’s edition.