Orange County Voices : Training, Trust, Truth Can Keep Brutality Out of Uniform
The nationwide furor caused by a videotape of the police beating of Rodney G. King in Los Angeles has caused law enforcement agencies throughout the nation to reflect on their procedures for handling volatile situations. The Times asked Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters and Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, to talk about the effect of the King incident on local law enforcement policies and procedures. They were questioned by Claudia Luther, Times editorial writer, and the discussion was moderated by Stephen Burgard, The Times Orange County editorial page editor. The conversation took place March 22 at sheriff’s headquarters in Santa Ana. Question: President Bush said that he had seen (the videotape of King’s beating) and that it made him sick. Even (Los Angeles Police Chief) Daryl F. Gates has said that it made him ill to watch that tape. Let me start with Chief Walters and ask you, what was your personal reaction to it?
Chief Walters: At first I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It took a while to sink in, and the more I saw it, the more disturbed . . . it really bothered me. I guess it is a difficult thing to accept that that can happen on the street.
Sheriff Gates: I would probably have to repeat a lot of the words I have heard from professionals and from the law enforcement world: It made me queasy. It made me sick. It made me nervous. I think it was a black mark on the profession that we all love and respect and are dedicated to very deeply. The more times I saw it on TV . . . it made me angry that people in our business would do something like that. That’s my personal, emotional feeling. I won’t forget it for a long time. I don’t think any of us will.
Kennedy: I was shocked and horrified to see it, simply put.
Q: There have been a couple of calls even within the law enforcement community for Daryl Gates’ resignation. Is this something that you would be prepared to do at this point?
Chief Walters: I think that for me personally it is really an issue between him and the people that employ him and the community. . . .
(But) I don’t think Daryl Gates should be the scapegoat for the problems that we’re having in our society. We recruit (police officers) from the human race, and there are going to be mistakes made. I think it’s a dreadful mistake to think getting rid of Daryl Gates is going to suddenly fix all of our ills. It’s not going to happen.
Sheriff Gates: I would just say that in relation to any of us in law enforcement, if something were to occur within this organization, I would hope that the examination would go to the policies that are in place and the procedures that are in place, the training that has been conducted--supervisory as well as rank and file on the streets. . . .
I don’t know how you can blame the leader if he has done his job as much as he can to make sure that those policies come alive and are followed. . . . You can’t blame the guy who is running the shop of 8,000 people or 2,000 people--whatever it may be. . . .
Kennedy: Chief (Daryl) Gates is responsible for his department, and the people of Los Angeles are the ones that should judge him. I believe it’s their decision.
Q: Chief Walters, do you think that any of your officers behave like this?
Chief Walters: I would hope not, but certainly that is possible. I would think it would be naive of anybody in any organization to think that their employees sometimes don’t step outside the rules. I think the real question is what are you doing to identify (police misconduct), correct it and, if you can’t make corrections, to remove those people from the workplace. There have to be clear messages that it is not condoned, it is not acceptable, and that you will use every legal means to follow that through, whether it’s administrative or criminal.
One of important things the employees need to know is what are the standards that you want from them in the performance of their duties. And part of that means that you have to know that they are human beings and they make mistakes, and you have to be prepared to deal with that. If you don’t have a way of constructively addressing their needs as employees, then it will manifest itself negatively, and one of those negative ways is by excessive force. It is a twofold thing; it’s not just getting rid of employees who are not doing what they should do and making clear what their expectations are, but it is also recognizing that they’re fragile human beings, that they’re subjected to tremendous tragedies in our society that no one else is subjected to, and it will take its toll on them. I think if you don’t recognize that going in, you make a drastic mistake.
Sheriff Gates: It’s always frustrating to me as a law enforcement leader to see the attention that is applied, rightly so, when this kind of incident occurs. . . . I think we have taken all of the appropriate action that (Chief Walters) outlined clearly here that you should take. (But) I think that the political leaders that we hear a lot of screaming and hollering from today . . . what have they done to make sure that there are jobs? What have they done to make sure that there are opportunities?
Q: Has the Rodney King case made it more difficult for local police officers to maintain a level of trust in the community?
Chief Walters: It’s possible. I would hope that most agencies would have a philosophy that there is an ongoing relationship and an incident in another community wouldn’t make people (here) question the integrity of their officers. . . . I would think, though, that it could affect agencies that have not had ongoing dialogue, and, suddenly for something like this to happen, there is just certain to be a doubt cast in the community’s mind if they’re not just sure what this department is all about.
Sheriff Gates: You have to stay in touch with the people. . . . We have a community feedback which we have been operating for about 10 years. . . .
I think the other way that you find that is from the internal part of your organization. . . . I think that (employees) are more critical (of) our people than the outside world is. They will bring complaints about people not doing their job . . . which is probably what we take the most seriously in most cases because they are going to be real situations which we have to live with and change and deal with.
Kennedy: Clearly, there is a certain amount of trust that has been injured by this incident. One thing I think is essential in building trust is how you deal with complaints (of police misconduct). One of the problems we are having in Orange County in dealing with complaints is the difficulty in reporting the action taken (to dispose of the matter). I think for years law enforcement agencies have been moving toward not giving specific information as to what action was taken to deal with a certain complaint that came about because of an officer’s potential misconduct.
That needs to start going the other way. If we are going to maintain a faith that our law enforcement executives are dealing with the kinds of complaints that they get, they are going to have to put down in writing a response to complainants--what action was taken with the officers in question. I mean more than just a standard “exonerated,” “sustained,” “not sustained” or “unfounded,” which is sort of what it has come down to. . . . I think if we do that, we will find that it will help to rebuild the trust that is squashed whenever you have an incident that is this severe. . . .
Q: Do you think it is time for some sort of police commission or civilian review board in Orange County to review incidents involving police or sheriff’s deputies?
Kennedy: We haven’t taken that position. . . .
Sheriff Gates: I think that the ultimate community review is a thing called community feedback. . . .
Any criminal complaint that comes into this agency in relation to one of our personnel, founded or unfounded, once the facts are put together, that’s delivered to the district attorney, and it’s his decision to make. . . . The FBI (also) is there to look at all of those areas in criminal as well as civil . . . that need to be looked at with outside eyes. I think that those kinds of bodies are the appropriate places to be doing the work.
In these (civilian) commissions that are formed, there is always politics. . . .
Chief Walters: I think you have to look at the history of law enforcement. Law enforcement was very corrupt in America if you go back 50 years ago. It went through a giant reform period, professionalization. Part of that professionalization was keeping politics and civil service separated. When you create a commission of public review, all you are doing is injecting politics back into professionalization. . . . You look at Los Angeles as one of the few around that has a police commission; the chief reports to that commission. If you wanted to use Los Angeles as an example, has that police commission affected seriously the delivery of services? If they have, they ought to be fired and not Chief Gates.
I think it would be a dreadful mistake, based on this incident, to turn around and say the solution is to have a citizen oversight or review committee. Citizens cannot devote the amount of time, the expertise, the training--they just don’t have it. They end up being token persons that answer to the politicians and do what they say. That’s the real world.
Q: Have you had any increase in complaints that have been filed since the Rodney King case? Have people been coming forward with things that they haven’t before?
Assistant Sheriff Walter Fath: One person called and said he had already made a complaint and he wanted to make sure we knew he had made it.
Chief Walters: No instance that I am aware of. They do run in peaks and valleys, and they’ve been pretty constant.
We try to look at twofold--not just the complaints, (but) how about the good things that you’re doing? . . . We end up dealing with victims, and we end up dealing with arrestees and suspects. Those are all very negative things to an officer that comes into this business and wants to do something positive. They feel overrun by the system; they feel like there’s a battle they can’t win.
But what we’ve tried to do is direct their energy (and) give them time to work with other agencies like the County Human Relations Commission or the Public Works Department or the YMCA or whatever public agency is out there that can help us address these social problems. . . . By allowing those things, we have seen a tremendous change in their attitude and the public attitude about what we can do, and the end result is really much more praise for their work.
Kennedy: Complaints have not gone up at the (Human Relations) Commission since the Rodney King case. We don’t get enough complaints to give you a trend in that short period of time. We get maybe 30 complaints a year for excessive force, whatever. In fact, I do believe it went down at one point years ago, and I think it was about the time when . . . cities starting self-insuring and police chiefs starting seeing the real value of police complaints as a management tool to identify problems and head them off before they become fiascoes. I really believe that most complainants now go directly to departments with their complaints, whereas maybe a decade ago we may have gotten more than the departments.
Q: Chief Walters and Sheriff Gates, has the incident in Los Angeles prompted any review of your own policies of how your officers behave in the field?
Chief Walters: One of the things I do is personally bring the officers in when they start on the department and have them swear to the oath of office, and they get a very strict orientation about what we are all about, what we stand for and what we’re involved in and what happens to them when things go wrong. We try to really take it from a really positive aspect. One of the biggest things that I have tried to do to deal with the stresses they face is to make it OK to have problems. If you don’t say that, and you don’t let them recognize that, then they keep it within themselves. Those things internalized many times can result in behavior that is not appropriate on the street, because being macho policemen, you’re not supposed to cry and nothing is supposed to bother you. But that is not the real world; that is not what happens.
Q: But have there been any changes (in your policies) since this incident?
Chief Walters: Absolutely not.
Sheriff Gates: (We have) a police chiefs and sheriff meeting every month where a lot of these things are discussed, an exchange of what is going on in their shops and my shop. If we have, for instance, a pursuit that’s been an extraordinary one, there is discussion. How many policemen? How many cars? How did the people react? Did they follow the procedure that we’ve got in place, and if they didn’t, what do we need to do to tighten that up?
So there is a constant process of review. . . .
Q: Was the (Rodney King) film used in a briefing or training sessions?
Sheriff Gates: I don’t think there is any police department in America today that probably hasn’t discussed their situation internally in their department and what they’re doing today based on what happened.
Chief Walters: We all have a system of reviewing our policies and procedures. This would be an example of something that would reinforce that system. . . . You would look at if there is any way we could take this incident and say, “What is there in our system? Is there some fault or weakness here that we need to correct or take a look at?” But it wouldn’t be the knee-jerk reaction of “Hey, they got caught in Los Angeles, so you guys watch your Ps and Qs so that you don’t get caught here.” That’s not the reaction.
Q: Rusty, would you like to see the individual departments in Orange County and the Sheriff’s Department use this particular incident to prompt a review of their procedures? Do you think that it is justified or warranted, based upon the severity?
Kennedy: The most important reaction of local law enforcement would be to look at training on how to control yourself when you have been attacked and adrenaline is rushing through your body and you feel your life may be threatened, or any kind of situation where an officer is in that high emotional “fight” profile, and how they can control that and bring it down. I had a police officer this week who described a situation where he was out on stakeout and he was assaulted by the person that they were trying to catch in a crime. He described how, as the fight progressed, he felt himself losing control and started to really beat the hell out of this guy. He felt he went too far and used too much force, but before he went way too far, his training kicked in, and he stopped. His reflection on it was that that training really paid off for him. . . .
Not just training for this particular kind of scenario, but cultural awareness too, (is something) supervisory personnel at all levels should see as their most important job (to) help officers deal with the stereotypes that are the very natural consequences of the interactions that they have with people. In other words, if you are a police officer and 90% of the Latinos that you see are those Latinos that you are arresting . . . the empiric knowledge that you gain from that context is going to tell you Latinos are criminals. . . . The way to overcome that is by setting up experiences where the officers can have the opportunity to positively interact with people of minority cultures so that their only experiences aren’t with criminals. . . .
Q: Chief Walters and Sheriff Gates, how are your officers disciplined for using excessive force?
Chief Walters: Each case is taken individually. An investigation is done--it may be by Internal Affairs or may be by the supervisor of the section they are in--and reviewed by management; recommendations are made based upon each individual incident and the person’s prior performance. If there is any indication that there is criminal behavior, we call the district attorney’s office, and they conduct a criminal investigation separate from our investigation.
Sheriff Gates: We do it in two ways. You have a personnel complaint that would come from the outside; normally, that is referred to our personnel section. . . . We also have the internal complaint that would come from sergeants or fellow officers that would come through the system. . . .
Kennedy: One thing I’d like to say in this area is (the review process) has got to be opened up. What happens to the officer in a complaint where it’s a sustained complaint where they find wrongdoings? The individual who has been victimized in a situation needs to know. You can’t build community relations unless they know that action was taken, not just that it was sustained, but what the action was--whether their pay was held up, or leave without pay, terminated, put into a training program. . . . They’ve got to know that disciplinary action was taken against the officer that they complained about or the feeling of satisfaction and trust isn’t there.
Q: Subsequent to the Rodney King incident, the officers involved described it totally different than what actually happened when you saw it on the tape. It was nowhere near as serious in the written (police) reports as it was when you saw what happened. Is there any instruction now that you give to your officers or deputies about how you would want them to report incidents they have seen on the scene?
Chief Walters: We have had training that specifies that in your reports you are to specifically state your actions and what you did. It’s not to be a generalization. The whole reason for that in there is so that you get accurate reporting and they know what is expected of them.
Sheriff Gates: You are going to have, generally, a sergeant on the scene within a short period of time, if not immediately, when these incidents take place, (and) that individual is trained to look for these signals of wrongdoing. . . . It is his job to make sure that the actions that were done there or stated in that report (are reported) in an accurate way. . . .
Q: These small video recorders are now prolific in society. Has this changed policing for you?
Sheriff Gates: Eventually, within the next couple of years, you will have a videotape situation of almost everything that goes on of any significance in the field. That kind of technology is within reach. . . . That’s going to take a little bit of convincing with police officers in today’s world, because there is a negative to these kinds of situations in that they get fearful of Big Brother’s eyes. . . .
Chief Walters: On major incidents . . . if there is a potential for either the officers to be physically attacked or for there to be instances where we have to use force, we’ll take a video camera. We do it for the purpose of critiquing the incident and also to make sure that we have a documented record of what happened. Because things can explode. You take the (anti-)abortion (protests), so many explosive issues in the community . . . they can really get away from you. And the accusations that come back on you really can taint your credibility and reputation. So we have taken the opposite approach. We’ve done it in gang areas, we’ve done it in large demonstrations, and they have really been a savior for us, because when the (City) Council asks, and you give them four hours of tape, they have a different perception of what occurred than listening to reports. They can see what happened--these two groups got into it, we were forced to come in, intervene, break it up, and, as a result, some people end up getting injured.
I am a strong advocate of technology and video. It only enhances our reputation, our professionalism, and it says, hey, if we’re unwilling to be looked at on the video camera that we’re running, there’s really something dreadfully wrong about our system.
Kennedy: I don’t think surveillance of everybody everywhere is the ideal system for controlling crime. But I do believe that the advent of the portable videotape in the community will help to identify and get rid of the criminal element amongst police officers.
(The King incident) is, for all intents and purposes, proof of some misconduct. . . . But if it wasn’t for that videotape, we probably would have missed it. So, to a certain extent, maybe (video cameras) will help identify some of those bad problems that are happening out there and get some of those people who don’t belong in uniform out.