A significant byproduct of the landmark O.J. Simpson murder case was the hit in prestige suffered by the Los Angeles Police Department. The image meticulously crafted by William H. Parker, and projected into the public psyche by “Dragnet” and other prime-time television shows, suddenly became the punch line for late-night talk show hosts and invited comparisons to the fabled “Keystone Kops,” the bumbling policemen featured in slapstick comedies from the silent era.
The flagrant disregard for fundamental legal and investigative tenets such as the “chain of custody” caused key pieces of evidence to be rendered inadmissible in court, and allowed (in the view of many, especially those living west of La Brea Avenue) a cold blooded murderer to go free.
For their brethren further east, it was merely a validation of what they’d known for decades: real street justice is a subjective concept shaped not by ethical, legal or moral precepts. Rather it is rendered via the guidelines of economics, ethnicity, and personal bias.
If it walks like a duck …
“My forte is in narcotics. I’m a born-and-raised dope cop. I mean, that’s all I ever wanted to do. And in LA, that’s pretty easy to do. And we went out and rock and rolled. We did our job. We had a lot of fun.”
— LAPD Detective Frank Lyga from a 2001 PBS interview
Recruitment for the LAPD has traditionally been given a boost by its perceived status within the law enforcement community at large, as the nonpareil police force in existence, a pro-active agency that made up for its relatively small numbers by aggressively seeking out those it believed likely to commit crimes. This manifested itself during sweeps engineered by Chief Daryl Gates in the mid-1980s, mass arrests of those who fit the demographic (many ethnic minorities in their late teens and early 20s) prior to the weekend, often releasing scores of them on Monday without them being formally charged.
It was this reputation that lured out of towners to come West to join up with “the best of the best,” among them a former deputy from upstate New York named Frank Lyga, and a newly discharged U.S. Marine named Rafael (aka “Ray”) Pérez.
Underneath the hype
Curiously, this persona carries internal weight within the city environs as well, says Attorney Gregory W. Smith, whose resume includes some 100 legal proceedings involving the LAPD. The façade of a “sexy entity” casts a shadow over those who govern the municipality, often over the mayor and city council, potentially burdening them with, in his words, “a false image of reality.”
The aftermath of O.J. (preceded by Rodney King and the 1992 riots) was followed by the Rampart Division scandal circa 1997-98, from which the force is still recovering.
As a result, it has suffered the indignity of oversight from outside agencies like the Department of Justice, especially traumatic for insular organisms wary of others not in their familial sphere. All this is accompanied by a call for cultural diversity, a move akin to fingernails across a blackboard to entrenched old timers clinging to the status quo.
Anyone curious about the future of the Los Angeles Police Department might access http://www.lapdonline.org/newsroom/ (or search for the keywords “LAPD academy graduation”) to check the ethnic breakdowns of each respective class. Over the past year, each class, which averages 30 individuals or less, has included no more than two (and sometimes zero) African Americans.
This, coupled with the retirement of key (African American) command staff presents a legitimate concern about the already precarious relationship between the police force and its Black citizenry.
Pushing to diversify
“If you meet the City’s standards (for employment as a police officer), a thorough background investigation will be conducted. It will include checks of employment, police, financial, education, and military records and interviews with family members, neighbors, supervisors, co-workers, and friends.”
— from http://www.lapdonline.org/i_want_to_know
A cursory look at the minimum requirements for the LAPD may be glimpsed at http://per.lacity.org/psb/lapd_recruit1.htm. Aside from the criminal background and physical aptitude requirements, areas like the mental health and credit rating of an applicant are considered. All in all, it’s a rigorous process.
Recently retired Anita Ortega has a unique perspective on the exit and entrance of African Americans into the department. The former UCLA basketball All-American went on to endure a successful career with the LAPD and resulted in her retirement as a captain (third grade). Her professional experience is perhaps different than most because of her public relations value as an Afro-Latina, who was prominently featured on billboards and television spots. Still, she was not immune to the hurdles of racism and sexism.
“It’s a male-orientated profession,” she admits of the police force.
Her last assignment was serving as commanding officer of the Recruitment and Employment Division. From this vantage point, she was well aware of the plummeting percentage of Black inductees into the department.
“Statistically, it was obvious that our numbers were decreased in terms of people of color, women, and Asians/Pacific Islanders,” she admits.
The difficulty in hiring recruits of color is impacted by national police-related incidents and the break down in trust communicated with the various communities in the city of Los Angeles.”
Another recent retiree, Sgt. Wayne K. Guillary, did not reach the command ranks, but distinguished himself by being a vocal critic of the institution he served for 34 years. His recent award of $500,000 from a lawsuit claiming harassment and retaliation caps a career as a department whistle blower.
A seasoned veteran by 1997, he’d succeeded well enough to be selected for the Recruitment section. As he settled into the post, however, he discovered an unsettling reality that ran counter to the official mandate to increase diversity.
“Prior to being appointed to the position,” he remembers, “I was informed by my superiors that there were serious issues within the section regarding recruitment efforts in seeking out qualified African Americans applicants.”
Contemporary symptoms of racism are generally subtler in appearance, but the methodology that confronted him was deliberate in its execution. The workplace atmosphere was such that people mandated to hire and replenish department ranks felt comfortable enough to express their bias in official in-house files.
Guillary recalls his discovery of “…racially offensive comments on recruitment documents that there were “TOO MANY NI–ERS” being hired.
In order to advance their own personal agenda, individuals would target geographic areas with little or no minority representation. Like-minded bigots “… had formed a click within the section and would travel into communities where there was an absence of African Americans (in order to enlist others of their ink).”
“Upon reporting the facts to my superiors, I was removed from my assignment and reassigned to an administrative office, and informed that I supervised two Blacks.’”
Guillary eventually was vindicated by winning his first lawsuit, to the tune of $300,000 in 2001.
Since then he has been relegated to attempting to steer potential candidates towards law enforcement on an informal basis.
“I attempt to encourage younger Blacks that the absence of people of color in law enforcement only exacerbates our problem, and that we must be an active part in finding solutions rather that criticism.”
In this situation, he echoes an opinion shared by academic Renford Reese at Cal Poly Pomona. He argues that exclusion from the various departments will only exacerbate the problems that manifest themselves across the country.
If nothing else, Reese believes, the presence of high-ranking officers of color is necessary for what it symbolizes to the respective ethnic communities—that there are people who look like them in the (upper echelon.)
Officers who are representative of the population they patrol are more critical, when it comes to having an upper hand in the most important tool in defusing volatile scenarios: simple conversation. Roughly 80 percent of what a police officer does involves interpersonal communication.
Acknowledging the stress inherent in the job, peace officers (regardless of their race) toil at one of the most stressful jobs in civil service, says Reese.
Ultimately, wearing the shield is their sacrifice for their community, reasons the Cal Poly Pomona University professor. He believes, “it is better to have someone rather than no one (at the top).”
In closing, we are in the second phrase of Chief Charlie Beck’s tenure, which is terming out in 2019. Beck has endured mixed reviews. Some have praised him for his community outreach while others have simultaneously criticized him for overseeing an unbalanced disciplinary system for his subordinates.
The chief is a department insider—his father, sister, and two of his children have or do wear the LAPD badge at one time or the other (his wife served as a dog handler for the Sheriff’s department); some have suggested this slants his judgment.
Outsiders, including Reese, suggest Beck is doing all the right things by getting on the horn and communicating with the public, but think he is hamstrung by a “national culture of hyper-sensitivity.”
Consequently, a police-related death in Baltimore (Freddie Gray) or Texas (Sandra Bland), or an officer-involved shooting in Cleveland (Tamir Rice) or Baton Rouge, La., complicates an already difficult environment on the West Coast. All of this is accelerated by the saturation of media outlets (in which Los Angeles serves as an epicenter).
It bears remembering that the issues law enforcement faces are merely indicative of a larger sickness seen throughout society. Police problems are the end result of a breakdown in our culture as a whole, say researchers. Issues of class friction, economics, and all around inequality serve as bacteria and viruses contaminating the city long before the infection is dumped into the lap of a law enforcement cadre, with the expectation that they act as drug interventionists, marriage counselors, social workers, and therapists, all on the mean streets of the City of Angels.