New Police Chief's Goal: Restore Respect for Troubled Department

Times Staff Writer

Police Chief Patrick M. Connolly is optimistic about his mission: return respectability to a department Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner once called "embarrassing to all of law enforcement."

Connolly resigned as UCLA's police chief to accept the "challenging job" of heading a department that gained notoriety when two of its officers were convicted last month of torturing a teen-age burglary suspect with an electric stun gun. Both were fired shortly after the 1986 incident.

It is a department that has two other officers--one of whom has been fired--under investigation by the district attorney's office for the September death of a man they had arrested.

It is a department whose previous chief was fired after being accused of soliciting officers for information to discredit a city councilman. And it is a 62-member department that lost five positions when the City Council made spending cuts in November.

"I don't envision this job to be an insurmountable job or I wouldn't have come here in the first place," said Connolly, who admitted he did some "soul searching" before leaving his ivory tower for the streets of Huntington Park.

On the Job One Week

Connolly, 49, started the $62,300-a-year job Monday. In an interview last week at his police station office, the new chief said he does not plan a wholesale departmental housecleaning--no additional firings or a drastic reorganization of command.

But Connolly said he is reviewing departmental procedures--from the way crime statistics are reported to guidelines on the use of deadly force--to determine if changes are needed.

"I perceive that there are a lot of things that will change," he said. "We're going to sit down and we're going to say what's best for the department, and what's best for the community and then, by God, we're going to change them," he said.

Connolly is a soft-spoken man with a deliberate manner. He is quick with a story about his days as an amateur boxer or his experiences in law enforcement. He could buy his pants a bit smaller if it weren't for the pistol he keeps tucked in the waistband.

The new chief was raised in Huntington Park and now lives in Cypress. He received a master's degree in criminal justice from California State University, Long Beach, in 1978.

Connolly spent more than 16 years on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and reached the rank of lieutenant before he became the police chief at Cal State Los Angeles in 1978. He moved to UCLA, which has a 64-officer force, in 1983.

While at the Sheriff's Department, Connolly worked patrol and served as a jail kitchen officer. He investigated robberies, assaults and other crimes as a detective, and he was field commander of the department's hostage negotiation team.

At UCLA, Connolly dealt with the security problems of a campus that a 1985 FBI crime report ranked fourth in the nation among state colleges and universities in the number of reported violent crimes. Last year, the rape of a student in a dormitory prompted UCLA to adopt some of the toughest security measures for residency halls in the nine-campus UC system.

High Frequency of Claims

Now Connolly faces a new task. Huntington Park has had numerous complaints of police abuse. A Times survey found that the department had 30 legal claims alleging brutality filed against it in 1984 and 1985, the highest frequency of such claims of 11 police departments in the southeast Los Angeles County and Long Beach areas. Seven claims of excessive force were filed against the city in 1986, and six were filed last year, according to city records. A claim is the first step in the process of filing a civil lawsuit against the city.

The city has settled some of the cases but still faces at least seven lawsuits stemming from claims against police officers.

To prevent police violence, Connolly said he would make it known to the public and his officers that use of excessive force will not be tolerated. The chief noted that it was the department that called the district attorney's office when Huntington Park youth Jaime Ramirez was tortured with a stun gun in the back of a police cruiser. And the department notified the district attorney's office again when Jose Robles died Sept. 15 from injuries he received while being arrested.

"If you're a citizen and you have a problem I've got to be able to convince you if you come to us with that problem, we're not going to sweep it under the table," he said. ". . . These are things that cannot and will not be tolerated."

The city has been sued for $10 million in the Ramirez case, and for $6 million in the Robles case.

Connolly said he will meet with community groups in an effort to establish greater understanding and support between the public and the Police Department.

84% Latino

Huntington Park has the same law enforcement problems faced by any police agency in a highly developed area, Connolly said. But he noted one difference: 84% of the 55,000 people who live in the three-square-mile city are Latino.

The new chief, who speaks only a few words of Spanish, said he is aware of allegations that Latinos have been the most frequent victims of rough treatment by Huntington Park police officers.

"Clearly, that's a perception in at least a portion of the Hispanic community," he said. "And if that's a perception, irrespective of whether it's reality or not, it's something that we have to deal with."

"The demands are today that you got to have . . . fairness and consistency," Connolly said.

Connolly was careful not to criticize former Police Chief Geano Contessotto, who was fired in July by a City Council that tired of the department's problems and the negative publicity they generated.

Councilman Herbert A. Hennes called for Contessotto's ouster last February, contending that he was an incompetent administrator. The rest of the council initially supported Contessotto. Then in June, Hennes called for an investigation into allegations that Contessotto solicited information from officers to discredit Hennes. Contessotto was suspended later that month pending his July dismissal.

Must Set a Standard

While not directly criticizing Contessotto, Connolly implied that the department had not been given the direction it needed to function properly.

"It's absolutely imperative that the administration of any department sets a standard and they adhere to that standard," he said.

"If you took police officers in general, the vast majority of them on any department want those marching orders. They want a standard to be set there, where they know that they're going to be viewed as being professional."

Connolly said morale in the department is not notably low, but neither is it high, and many of his officers are waiting to see what changes he will make.

The chief said he plans to give his sergeants, lieutenants and captain more responsibility. He also will begin holding regular meetings with his administrative staff and circulate minutes from those meetings to officers. Connolly said regular department-wide meetings will be scheduled.

"There's got to be more participation all the way up and down the line," he said.

Connolly said there will have to be some reorganization within the department to accommodate the loss of five positions. None of those was a patrol officer post, but policemen must pick up duties performed by the non-sworn personnel who were lost.

"It's time here that we stop dwelling on the negative and we start dwelling on the positive," Connolly said. "We're not the first department that has gone through . . . trying times. We won't be the last."

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