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Chief Burgreen Rejects Plan to Eliminate Military Titles

TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Diego Police Chief Bob Burgreen on Tuesday rejected a proposal to abolish militaristic titles of police officers in favor of civilian descriptions, a recommendation that had been severely criticized by rank-and-file officers.

The proposal, part of a 24-recommendation reorganization plan issued in May, would have replaced military titles--such as captain, lieutenant and sergeant--with titles similar to those used by the FBI--such as division director, assistant division director and supervising agent.

Burgreen cited “some very strong feelings” among officers that the department has historically had a rank structure, and the public is used to seeing symbols of authority such as sergeant’s stripes.

He said Assistant Chief Norm Stamper, who made the proposal, “is an astute judge of organizational culture, and he knew full well how that recommendation would be received. He was fighting me going in and he knew it,” Burgreen said.

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Stamper’s proposal had been intended to reduce the intimidation that a lower-ranking officer feels when talking with a superior and to create a corporate spirit as opposed to a military atmosphere.

“The logic behind the recommendation, I buy in to,” Burgreen said. “Those police officers on the street, they are the ultimate professionals, and they should not be treated as privates following orders.”

But Burgreen said he does not believe that “the public views the officers as privates, and I don’t think they view themselves as privates.”

Stamper was not surprised by the decision, but stood by the recommendation, saying it was “important to reduce communication barriers and to reinforce the fact that we are a community police department.”

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“I think that the message to anybody who is seeking to reform a police department is that there are many traditions in policing, none as venerable and as old as the military titles,” Stamper said. “For that reason alone, those traditions need to be re-examined in the light of 1991 conditions and needs. Policing is undergoing a major change.”

The rest of the reforms would be diminished only symbolically by the rejection of the demilitarization, Stamper said.

“It’s a recommendation that could have stood alone, if implemented. It was certainly reinforcing a philosophy that was the basis of the audit,” Stamper said.

Harry Eastus, president of the Police Officers Assn., welcomed Burgreen’s decision, saying, “We understand where Stamper was coming from, but I don’t think any of us were looking to mimic the FBI.”

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Rank-and-file officers particularly objected to the proposal because it would have stripped them of visual status symbols such as sergeant’s stripes and captain’s bars, Eastus said.

“It’s an inwardly thing. You’re asking these guys to take off what they earned, and that’s kind of tough,” Eastus said.

The public also identifies with the current rank structure, and people may not respond to a “supervising agent” as they would a sergeant, Eastus said.

“People are used to seeing a sergeant . . . sometimes that’s all it takes to calm a situation. They feel that somebody is here in charge that they can talk to,” Eastus said.

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The demilitarization proposal was the second one in the 195-page report to be rejected. In June, the city manager’s office said an early retirement buyout plan costing as much as $700,000 in the first year was too expensive. The plan would have offered “golden handshakes” to as many as seven top managers from the ranks of commander and deputy chief.

So far, four of the 24 recommendations made by Stamper to reform the police bureaucracy by thinning top-heavy management and doing away with its paramilitary culture have either been adopted or are in the process of being implemented, Burgreen said.

Earlier this month, Burgreen named his new, leaner management team to help implement the 18 proposals from Stamper’s report that have yet to be acted upon.

Among those proposals are granting captains greater authority over budgets and organizational discipline, creating a “customer-satisfaction” survey to go out to anyone who has dealings with the department and emphasizing the benefits of having officers on the street more often to get to know the neighborhoods they patrol.

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