He Goes by Book or Rewrites It : New Pasadena Chief Seen as a Paradox

Times Staff Writer

As a policeman working his way up through the ranks, James Robenson was known as a streetwise cop who did what it took to get the job done.

The new Pasadena police chief recalled that he liked to approach a well-known dope dealer in a crowd, give him a $10 bill and say "thanks" to discredit the pusher among his customers. He recalled that he once broke up a card game by palming a card and making it look as if the house was crooked. And then there was the time he said he helped persuade a crook to steal a car so that evidence could be gathered against another criminal.

For tactics like those, colleagues like Det. Clyde Ito characterize Robenson as "unorthodox." But most also seem to agree with Ito that Robenson is "innovative, different and controversial."

Paradoxical might be another way to describe Robenson, a former commander who was sworn in this week as the first black police chief in the city's 99-year history.

Even as a senior officer with 21 years on the force and two college degrees, he still hung around the squad room and dropped in on detectives to keep his feel for the cop on the street.

"I identify myself as a street cop," Robenson, a 6-foot, 200-pounder said.

"I can't lose that touch, that street moxie. I like to remember the emotions."

At the same time, he says that improving community relations will remain the cornerstone of department policy and he insists that his officers be sensitive to the residents they serve and "not confuse crooks with citizens."

In one breath--sounding like the sociology major he was at California State University, Los Angeles--he discusses "normative values" of various segments of the community and how to "market" different crime prevention programs to meet the needs of those groups.

In the next, he talks of police taking back turf and delivers his favorite message for criminals: "To crooks in Pasadena, and I've known a lot of them, I want them to know this is not their place."

The 44-year-old Robenson remembers the night about three years ago when he tackled a young father trying to commit suicide by jumping off a freeway overpass. He was called to the scene at the request of the distraught man, who had met Robenson 15 years earlier and still remembered him.

He frequently talks about keeping the "common touch." But he mentions that he lives in Upper Hastings, an affluent area of Pasadena and that his weekend social contacts include a well-known author and a publishing mogul.

Robenson, who prevailed over two other finalists for the $55,116-a-year post, seems to be widely respected within the 202-officer department, at City Hall and in the community.

"Jim offers some important strengths in the role of police chief which I think will be good for the city," Mayor William Bogaard said. "I think Jim is flexible and will keep a sharp eye out for ways in which innovative techniques can be used to improve public safety in Pasadena. He knows the community. He mixes well with the various segments of Pasadena, which is a diverse and complicated community."

Stephen Mack, president of the Pasadena branch of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, lauded Robenson's appointment. Mack said he expected it to be well received, particularly among the city's nearly 25,000 black residents. "He is well respected," Mack said. "He knows the ropes of this community. He's cooperative, friendly and knowledgable."

Robenson assumes management of a department that has had racial strife in the past. The department, which has 36 black officers, was sued in 1978 for discriminating against blacks and Latinos in hiring and promotion policies and settled the suit for $500,000 in 1983. The suit had alleged that only 13% of the force was black or Latino, while those minorities made up 35% of the city's general population. Robenson said he thinks he relates well to minority communities, but added that he does not believe that race was a major issue in his selection and said that the department is relatively free of racial tension.

Sgt. Jorge Garcia, who was Robenson's first training officer when the chief was a rookie, agreed that the department has little racial tension and credited Robenson with a high degree of integrity. "You aren't going to do anything wrong and get away with it because you're his friend," Garcia said. "I just finished getting a written reprimand, because he thought I was wrong and if he thought it was more serious, I'm sure I would have gotten a day off (suspension)."

"I've known the chief since he was a sergeant," said Detective Ito. "He's very straightforward. He addresses the issue right away. He gets to the point. You know where you stand. The general feeling on the floor (among the majority of officers) is we'll support him."

Most of the officers interviewed say Robenson does things differently from traditional police management.

"If there's a traditional way we've done something and Jim sees another, more effective, way to do it, he's not locked into the traditional way," said Lt. Rick Emerson, who has worked directly under Robenson for the last three years. "That can be frustrating for some people.

"He runs real close to the edge sometimes," Emerson said. "He's got the skills and the ability to know just how far you can go and still come under policy and procedures."

There are some veteran officers in the department who fear that Robenson will put too much emphasis on public relations, said Dennis Diaz, president of the 185-member Pasadena Police officers Assn., but he added that Robenson the support of most of the members of his association.

"We've had several years of one particular chief," Diaz said, referring to Robert McGowan, who just retired after 16 years as chief.

"Guys who have been here for a while think we just needed to change people and go outside (for a new chief.) Since he's been here, they just don't see change coming," Diaz said.

But Diaz said he thinks "we will definitely see change coming. Robenson probably will be the man to do what the guys want."

Robenson maintains that what he calls the "rock 'em, sock 'em versus social worker" debate is a false issue. He considers himself part of a "new breed" of police officials who are taking more pragmatic approaches to law enforcement.

"The cops on the street and the police chief both want to put crooks in jail," Robenson said. "The difference is the administration gets to say how it's done.

"For the most part, the mission of police departments since the days of Wyatt Earp has been to catch crooks and put them in jail." Robenson said that approach is no longer effective. He said that while crime prevention strategies have been stressed in recent years, officers still are trained primarily to deal with crime after it has occurred.

Although he would not give details, Robenson said he plans to launch a new training program with a heavy emphasis on heightening visibility in the community and making police presence felt more directly. The program will stress face-to-face contact with known criminals as well as law abiding citizens to defuse potential trouble.

"Some knuckleheads believe we want them to get out of their car and 'relate,' " Robenson said. "We want them to get out of the car and take the turf back."

Robenson views himself as a fair but tough go-by-the-book boss. "If you don't like the book, then rewrite it," he said.

One of seven children of a Zion, Ill., auto worker, Robenson said he was a good athlete in high school and enrolled in the University of Iowa where he played football. He said he dropped out, held odd jobs, drifted to Chicago and in 1964 came to Pasadena, where he became a policeman. By 1970 he was a detective and in 1972 he was promoted to sergeant. From there he progressed to lieutenant, commander and chief.

He earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Cal State Los Angeles and a master's degree in public administration from USC.

Robenson's wife, Susan, 38, is a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The couple met three years ago when she stopped by the Police Department to pick up a parking permit and went to the wrong office. Robenson escorted her to get a parking permit, they began dating and were married a year later. Each has been married twice before, she said. They have no children, but have a parrot named Simon. The two enjoy scuba diving, sailing and skiing together.

She described her husband is a "workaholic" who frequently brings work home. But she said that doesn't bother her because she is interested in his work.

"I was hoping for it," she said of Robenson's appointment as chief. "He had some pretty tough competition, but I knew he was the best man for the job."

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