Unless you have gone through the grueling training and taken the oath to uphold the law, you can never know what it's like to carry a gun and be licensed to shoot to kill.
That's why cops are different from the rest us — men and women who are part of a cult of law enforcement where there are unspoken rules of conduct that sometimes become a code of silence.
It is a very thin blue line that separates civilized people from the barbarians among us. Inevitably, a few cops cross that line; sometimes whole departments become infected in a way that makes officers blind to the abuses going on around them — patterns of conduct that are supported, even honored, by the community as a whole.
That's what happened to the Burbank Police Department, just as it did to the Los Angeles Police Department, which took three decades of revelations of police spying on prominent people, the videotaped Rodney King beating and the pattern of tolerance of excessive use of force it exposed, the Rampart scandal and finally a federal court consent to decree to reshape its culture.
Burbank is only at the start of dealing with a police culture gone awry. It is costing the city millions of dollars, led to a long string of lawsuits and could still lead to federal civil rights violation charges.
“We’re as far forward as we could be at this time … all in all, we’ve come a long way,” says Scott LaChasse, the retired LAPD commander who took over as interim Burbank chief of police 14 months ago and faces the daunting challenge of reshaping the culture of the department, a task that requires a delicate touch of pushing for dramatic changes without breaking the morale of the force.
“This is a good department, a good city. It’s going to be better.”
LaChasse and the top cops he brought in with him from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and LAPD — Tom Angel, Mike Albanese and others — are outsiders brought in to reform a department that hit bottom after the suicide of Burbank Police Sgt. Neil Gunn Sr.
They are seen by the rank-and-file as the “Big City Boys” — know-it-alls who know nothing about policing in a small suburban community where there's an all-in-the-family culture at City Hall, and where little kids grow up dreaming to be a hometown cop speeding to respond to a citizen's complaint and doing what it takes to fix it.
It's just a job to them, a dirty job in some ways, but one the city's leadership has realized must be done.
Lawsuits and local and federal investigations have exposed an alleged pattern of abuses of minorities and others on the streets and within the department.
LaChasse fired 10 officers whose arbitration hearings are pending, as are officer lawsuits over gender and racial discrimination dating back years before the new team took charge.
“Doing the right thing” in a “mission-driven versus self-driven” organization is at the core of LaChasse’s philosophy.
He’s handed out copies of the U.S. Constitution with newly designed police badges to emphasize respect for the rule of law, revised and expanded training programs — bringing in a psychologist and motivational speakers to work with officers — improved the personnel complaint process, institutionalized staff recognition and communication programs and enhanced tracking of crimes.
Change comes hard, and there is pushback. Many officers feel they have been passed over for promotion in favor of outsiders and warn about the risks of putting fewer officers on patrol and more into administrative roles.
“The telling sign is when the individuals start presenting their ideas to us,” says Deputy Chief Tom Angel. “That will tell us the organization is growing.”
There is a long way to go with the threat of costly lawsuits, grand jury investigations of past police abuses and the possibility of legal action by the U.S. Justice Department hanging over the city.
These problems didn’t come out of nowhere.
The actions of the police officers over a long period of time reflected the values of the community as a whole. It wasn’t a secret that Burbank cops were allegedly manhandling minorities in the name of law and order.
The big question is, what do the residents of Burbank want from their Police Department, what kind of city is it going to be? And that requires a robust public conversation that so far has been lacking.
RON KAYE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Share your thoughts and stories with him.