The Simi Valley police began somewhat shakily, if idealistically, as an outgrowth of the 1960s and some freethinking town fathers. But after years of struggling to be taken seriously and to overcome a reputation for misconduct, the force has achieved a new level of professionalism, in part by virtue of its latest contract negotiations, law enforcement officials say.
The police union's four-year contract, which is scheduled for approval Monday by the City Council, gives members wage parity with their counterparts in a dozen Southern California cities of comparable size--most importantly, higher-paying cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
"This could be a turning point . . . to make us competitive with the rest of the world," said Sgt. Gary Collins, spokesman for the Simi Valley Police Officers Assn.
Although such salary formulas are common in the state, according to the League of California Cities and several law enforcement experts, they are new to the Simi Valley Police Department, which until now has been only informally compared with departments limited to Ventura County.
Collins suggested that the wage formula will not only benefit union members--about 85 of the department's 100 officers--but should trigger more applications and ultimately improve the caliber of the force.
"We may be about to make that jump from a small-town police department to a large metropolitan police department," he said.
Paul Bechely, a negotiator with the consulting firm Employee Representation Services, agreed that, in principle, the contract should attract higher-quality job candidates.
"The applicants now are very much aware of the wage proposals and the salaries, the retirement benefits, the health insurance," Bechely said. "People ask that a lot more now than they did years and years ago."
Mayor Greg Stratton said the wage formula--achieved after tough negotiations and a three-week deadlock--symbolized the city's appreciation of its police force.
Sign of Recognition
"I think it should show that we have recognized them, as we believe they are, to be one of the best police departments in Southern California, right up there with all the rest," Stratton said.
Being regarded as other police forces has been a sensitive issue for the Simi Valley department, which began as an iconoclastic agency in 1971, two years after the city was incorporated, and later became a target of misconduct and brutality charges.
During the department's first few years, officers wore green blazers instead of traditional uniforms, discreetly concealed their weapons and drove plain white sedans instead of squad cars--a nod to the anti-war, anti-police sentiments of the time, according to Bruce Altman, Simi Valley's original city manager, and Sal Fasulo, president of the city's historical society.
"At the time it sounded like a real positive idea," Fasulo said. "There was a negative attachment to the police and what their service to the community meant, and so the idea of the non-traditional uniform was that this would soften any kind of a stern or hard-nosed, aggressive look."
The experimentation by the department, known as the Simi Valley Community Safety Agency, went beyond image. Gone was the classic, military hierarchy of most police forces, and its officers--called safety agents--were hired not only as law enforcers but also as problem solvers. The young city's police agency drew national attention and in March, 1972, was featured on the cover of the governmental trade magazine American City.
But while gentility may have been the byword, respect was hard to come by, according to several of the original members of the force.
"I was on night watch once and made a traffic stop," Lt. Dick Thomas recalled, "and I got out of my white car wearing my green blazer, and I asked the driver for his license. . . . And he was very polite and very accommodating, but at one point he said, 'Excuse me, can you really do this? I thought only policemen can write tickets.' "
Confused with civilians and resisted by residents, the Community Safety Agency reverted to traditional law-enforcement methods and appearances by the mid-1970s.
"It didn't really work because the community didn't want that kind of service," Thomas said. Simi Valley "is a solid, Republican, middle-class kind of place with solid, Republican values. We were a cutting-edge sort of thing and there was a lot of resistance and misinterpretation."
But with a traditional look came traditional problems: A string of brutality and misconduct complaints culminated in an investigation by the Ventura County district attorney's office into an alleged rape at the Simi Valley police station in 1981. The case involved a woman arrested on suspicion of drunken driving.
In a controversial report that still rankles police, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury concluded in 1982 that a rape had occurred, mostly likely by a Simi Valley officer, but that there was not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges. One outcome, however, was a departmental shake-up that included the appointment of Chief Lindsey (Paul) Miller, a silver-haired former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy credited with improving the Simi Valley force.
Bradbury is among several local officials who remember the department's turbulent period and say it has changed.
Ventura County Sheriff John Gillespie said the department has "become a fine organization over the past several years."
Robert Huber, an attorney and former Simi Valley councilman, said of the old brutality allegations: "I was there and some of it was righteous. But I'm proud of the department now."
As evidence of the department's professionalism, Miller cites an average response time of three minutes on emergency calls, the city's consistently low crime rate as documented in the FBI's annual crime report, and the force's aggressive pursuit of cash and other assets seized in drug-related arrests.
Miller said the department has seized about $4 million in drug money in the past two years, enabling it to buy equipment it could not otherwise afford--a $55,000 mobile evidence-collecting van, a $15,000 fingerprinting device that employs laser technology, and about $45,000 in 9-millimeter automatic pistols.
Two national experts in police management and criminology, James Q. Wilson, a professor at UCLA, and Michael Scott, a research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, said that it is difficult to objectively assess a police department and that most conventional standards--response times and numbers of complaints filed, for example--are questionable.
"Almost invariably it is going to be subjective, involving some kinds of citizen satisfaction, police efficiency and the like, and those things are impossible to measure in any systematic way," said Wilson, a professor in UCLA's Graduate School of Management.
One local skeptic says that if Simi Valley has a low crime rate, it is because the bedroom community of roughly 100,000 people has little crime and lots of police; according to the 1980 U.S. Census, one in every 36 Simi Valley residents was employed as a peace officer or firefighter. Many work outside the city.
"It's not because they're out there kicking butt, but because there's no butt out there to kick," said Larry Wilkin, a Vietnam veteran who manufactures machine parts for the aerospace industry and who believes that the local force should be replaced by Ventura County sheriff's deputies.
Wilkin claims that about six months ago, police refused to arrest some teen-agers who threw a lit firecracker at his wife's car and nearly injured his infant daughter. The police attitude was " 'boys will be boys,' " Wilkin said.
One resident who did take a complaint to the Police Department, Simi Valley attorney William R. Robinson, recalled that he came away dissatisfied enough to file a lawsuit in Ventura County Superior Court.
Robinson said the case, which was filed in 1986 and settled out of court last summer, alleged that his 19-year-old son was beaten by a rookie officer who had stopped him for no apparent reason, then became angry when the teen-ager demanded the officer's name and badge number. The incident occurred in March, 1985, Robinson said, and left his son with "substantial neck injuries."
Both he and Miller declined to disclose the amount of the settlement, saying they had agreed not to do so.
Robinson said that although Miller initially defended the young officer, the rookie was eventually fired for using illegal drugs. "I commend the chief for terminating him once it was discovered he had a drug problem," Robinson said.
Five other Simi Valley police officers have been fired since 1983, according to city records. Two officers lost their jobs amid a sex-with-a-minor scandal, one was terminated for spraying a prisoner with Mace, and another's career ended after he shot himself and then claimed in an official report that he was ambushed. The circumstances of the remaining case could not be ascertained.
Response Considered Key
Asked whether those disciplinary actions indicated a lingering problem in the department, Miller responded that every organization has personnel problems and that the key is to deal with them.
"We're no different than any other law enforcement agency," said Miller, who once studied to be a Baptist minister. "You find that when they occur, it is not unusual. . . . The thing that is important is, when a problem occurs, you have to take care of it."
"The best ones will have officers who misbehave in spite of the best screening processes and best training programs," Scott said of police departments. "So the important question to ask is what do they do with those people once discovered? Are they aggressive when they discover them and deal with them seriously? It sounds like this department does."