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On the Beat, Police March to a Changing Set of Rules : LAPD: Some officers feel new policies mean more danger and unwarranted complaints. Others see hope.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are weary of the headlines, the new rules, the mounting complaints from citizens, the ceaseless goading on the street by troublemakers who taunt them with the name Rodney King. Yet each shift, around the clock, the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department have to go back out there.

Those who seem best equipped to carry on are officers who recognize that they must be adaptable and open-minded in their public service. It is harder for the gung-ho types, the cowboys and gunslingers, the veterans and strivers who have invested their psyches in the department’s war on crime. They made their choice, according to the old station house saying, to “go with The Program”--to be hard-nosed and aggressive--and now it is not at all clear where The Program is going.

Some conscientious officers have tried to look at the year’s events as a challenge to better themselves and the department. Cadging copies of the Christopher Commission report, they have pored over its 228 pages on the sly. Dissidents within the department see hope in what the post-Rodney King order will bring.

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One day over a Mexican meal at an Echo Park restaurant, a soft-spoken sergeant confided that he was going in for a battery of heart tests. He has about as good a job as anyone at his level--he travels, he is a likely candidate for promotions. Lately, though, he had been having chest pains and indigestion.

“My wife says it’s because I’m taking all this King stuff so hard,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe she’s right.”

A homicide detective joked recently about printing up new calling cards reading: “I never met Rodney King.” An officer who traveled back East a few months ago kept silent when he heard cops in New York and other cities using the word “L.A.” as a verb. “You should have been here last week,” a Long Island policeman told the chagrined LAPD cop, boasting about a beating he had administered. “We really L.A.’d this guy.”

Los Angeles police officers have come to believe that their work lives will never be the same. In the wake of the King beating, personnel complaints have soared, prompting officers to confront even the most routine decisions with a new sense of trepidation.

Newton Division officer Dan Marrufo and his partner tailed a driver one day because he “looked odd.” Marrufo punched the man’s license into their Digicom MDT-800 computer to see if he had outstanding traffic warrants. Nothing came back. The officers kept on the man’s tail, still waiting for the information as he parked in front of a house and went inside. Finally, the computer spit back. No warrants. The cops drove off, not giving it a second thought.

Three days later, Marrufo’s supervising sergeant informed him that the man he followed had lodged a complaint. “Like, what right did we have for tailing him if he didn’t do anything wrong,” Marrufo said, shaking his head. “They’re crazy on us now. Just look at somebody the wrong way and it winds up on your record.”

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Departmentwide, 2,425 personnel complaints had been filed by October, a leap of more than 70% over the 1,430 filed in the same nine-month period of 1990. The figures not only reflect Police Chief Daryl F. Gates’ move to investigate all improper computer messages between officers and to reopen old complaints, but also reveal the dramatic rise in citizen complaints since the King beating, said department spokesman Fred Nixon.

There are some who manage not to succumb to the department’s gloom. Some are specialists like Central Division Detective Marco Tenorio, a 22-year-veteran who spends his days arresting dozens of small-time crack vendors. New dealers always quickly replace the arrested ones, but at least Tenorio and his fellow undercover agents have the satisfaction of putting away seasoned criminals. They know their enemies.

“When you’re on patrol it’s hard not to start thinking everyone’s against you,” said Tenorio, who put in his time walking a foot beat at Aliso Village housing project.

Sgt. Glenn Krejci stuffs his emotions inside as he makes his rounds, stoically taking whatever comes, even from children.

At dusk in South-Central, children scramble through housing project streets, massing on the sidewalks, zipping around on dirt bikes and motorcycles. Senior citizens and shoppers know enough to stay out of their way.

Krejci watched with amazement one night as an under-aged driver executed a perfect right turn in an off-road vehicle from Compton Avenue into the 113th Street Park. The park was too crowded for Krejci to follow, so he took 115th Street, glancing into cul-de-sacs until he saw the off-roader parked in front of a stucco house. Inside was the officer’s quarry, an 11-year-old named Deon, who was sitting cross-legged in front of the television with a friend who lived there.

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The father of the house appeared in the doorway. “Get this boy out,” he bellowed. “I knew he had to be running from something the way he shot in here.”

From the back seat of Krejci’s car, Deon stared impassively as the officer tried to learn where he lived. Four times, the youth gave Krejci false addresses--a fact that was learned only after the officer drove to the locations. After a fifth lie, Krejci turned in his seat, his genial face now stern, and shouted: “One more and you go down to Juvenile Hall!”

It was the kind of threat, heard out of context, that might be fodder for another complaint. On this night, no one was in earshot. Krejci glared at the youth until he got a sixth address.

It belonged to some of his cousins. Someone inside pointed Krejci to a brick project townhouse a block away. There, Deon’s white-haired grandmother shooed the youth inside. He had run away twice, she explained, assuring Krejci she would try harder to keep the youth in line. Back in his cruiser, the officer watched her close the door.

“You can write him off,” Krejci said. “He’s lost.”

On a darkened street off Broadway in South Los Angeles, two men sat glumly on a patch of broken sidewalk. The men on the ground--one clad in denim, the other in a cheap polyester suit--had been drinking beer all night. Now, they were coming off their high, staring into the unsympathetic faces of two Newton Division police officers.

The cops had caught the duo staggering in the street, trying with great difficulty to roll a stolen Buick Regal into a weed-choked alley. The car was stripped, its paneling, carpets, radio and upholstery gone. Transmission fluid seeped from under the hood.

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Sgt. Gary Hines, the officers’ supervisor, immediately noticed the leaking fluid when he rolled up in his black-and-white at 1:30 a.m. Leaving the officers with their quarry, Hines began a slow, meticulous night drive through the neighborhood, backtracking the trail of small puddles of fluid that he hoped would lead to the back-yard “chop shop” where the stolen car had been gutted.

This was what LAPD officials like to call “pro-active policing,” the way their cops used initiative instead of waiting for radios to direct them. It was the kind of effort that could advance a younger officer’s career. For Hines, a 20-year veteran with thinning hair who could expect to retire at his rank, it was no longer the act of a man going places. It was the ingrained reflex of a good cop.

Even though aggressive policing is being blamed for some of the department’s abuses in the months after the King beating, officers like Hines are not about to shift with the new wind. They remain loyal to the no-nonsense training they received years earlier. But as the rules change and the department’s image suffers, the effort to cling to old ways can take a toll on a cop’s mind-set.

Hines’ effort to track the leak seemed an impossible task as he inched down dim streets already striated with old stains. Then, in the middle of one block, Hines stopped his car and chuckled. “Bingo,” he said.

In the back yard, Hines and several other officers found the filth-encrusted engine block missing from under the Regal’s hood. Persuading a woman who lived there to let them peek into her garage, Hines found the rest of the missing parts--panels, radio, even gasoline credit cards.

It was the last upbeat diversion in a night that quickly went downhill. Minutes later, Hines rolled up to an apartment complex where a young officer had just used force on a drunken suspect. As the supervisor on the watch, Hines had to take the officer’s report and decide whether the use of force required further investigation.

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Erect, practically at attention, the officer’s eyes blinked nervously as he recounted the incident. His words tumbled out as he explained why he struck the drunken man, referring to him with an abbreviation of the gang-inspired street term, “homeboy.”

“Homes was beating up on his girlfriend, Sarge,” the officer began. “Paramedics couldn’t get him away from this lady’s heater, and he threw punches, and so anyway, I slapped him up, did what I was supposed to do. It quieted him down fast. . . . We have an ADW (assault with deadly weapon) on the woman and, uh, a use of force. . . . “

Embarrassed for the officer, Hines looked away. “Sounds reasonable,” he said. “Why don’t you head out? I’ll talk to the witnesses.”

There was only one, a woman as nervous as the young cop. She wandered in and out of her blood-spattered apartment, where the suspect’s girlfriend, a neighbor, had been visiting when she was attacked. Drunk on a 40-ounce bottle of Budweiser, the witness said, the suspect came after her friend, smashing glass panes with his fists.

“Believe me, you guys did nothing wrong,” the witness said. “That fool wasn’t no Rodney King. I called you and I’m glad you came.”

Hines glowered as he went back to his car. There was something on his mind, but he said nothing. He drove north toward the downtown Produce Market, past block after block of silent warehouses and truck stops. This is his turf, a place he often patrols to deter early morning burglaries. Here, the homeless know him by face, flashing peace signs as they shuffle behind carts piled high with rotting vegetables.

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Finally, Hines spoke.

“Did you see how scared he was?” He was still thinking about the frightened young officer. “He knows there’s gonna be a review, he knows it. Everyone is so sensitive about not offending somebody or breaking some minor infraction. And on top of that, the TV makes us look like violent a-------. It makes me sick.”

Hines drove on, venting the buttoned-up frustrations of an entire department. Victims are coddled, he complained, while cops are maligned. The ACLU never lets up. Citizens spit insults. Because a relatively few officers utter racial slurs, people assume all L.A. cops are bigoted illiterates. Now officers can’t even detain suspects without second-guessing themselves. And looming above it all is the name they can’t escape: Rodney King, Rodney King, Rodney King.

Hines stopped on a side street so lost in darkness that there were no obvious earthly landmarks.

“Look,” he said, rubbing his temples. “It’s real easy to jump on the bandwagon. It’s easy for them (people) to go back to all the bad experiences they’ve had with cops in the past--every ticket, every traffic stop, every cop who had a bad night. And they dump it all back on us. Who do we dump it on? Tell me that.”

Hines turned the key in the ignition. His watch was almost over.

When officers from the Southwest Division straggle in for their midnight roll call, they often divide into cliques. Probationers new from the Police Academy sit up front in the first three rows of beige plastic seats. A small group of cops, mostly blacks, sit off by themselves. Veterans and hard-liners sit in the rear. Everyone else takes seats where they can find them.

Garland Hardeman sits with the black officers. A tall, athletic cop who doubles as an Inglewood city councilman during off-hours, he has been tagged as a dissident for supporting reforms inside the department. Since the King beating, officers like Hardeman have grown optimistic about the department’s future, convinced that change is inevitable.

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Dissidents walk a fine line in the LAPD. They have to work with others who scorn them for their stance. They have to move with patience and tact, even as they confront the daily traumas that every cop faces on the streets. Some fear retribution from above, worried they might suddenly be assigned to “freeway therapy”--sent to some far-flung station miles from their homes.

During a midnight roll call several months ago, Hardeman found his role suddenly reversed. Officers were being told that there would be a new department policy on prone-outs, the tactic in which suspects are ordered to the ground, sometimes at gunpoint. In the Police Academy, officers are told that the tactic protects their safety. Minority community leaders contend that prone-outs have been abused, applied too frequently to blacks and Latinos.

Under the new rules, each prone-out will be documented. And every time the tactic is used against a suspect without a subsequent arrest, the officer will be investigated.

“Hey, it’s my life out there,” one Southwest officer said during the roll call. “What happens to the 1% of the suspects who are carrying guns?” Added another: “This is what I was taught in the academy. Give me one good reason why that training is wrong.”

Hardeman, who believes that prone-outs have their place in police tactics, said they are often applied inappropriately and too quickly. “People in the community in the south end are sick and tired of this treatment,” he said. “It’s a degrading thing. There are other tools we can use.”

Several weeks after the roll call, Hardeman and his black partner, a muscular ex-Marine named Del Stamp, had a chance to show their detractors another way of policing.

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At 12:40 one morning, the two officers responded to a report of a man acting violently in a second-floor apartment in the 3500 block of 27th Street. At the door, they were met by a hostile 34-year-old man who stood six-foot-two and weighed 230 pounds.

The man had been guzzling beer, vodka and brandy since 1 p.m. the day before, a potent brew that could convince anyone they were invincible. Shoving Hardeman and Stamp out of his doorway, the drunk bolted toward an open window. He bent his bulky body through the frame and pitched himself forward, landing on his feet a floor below.

Radioing for reinforcements, the two cops scurried down a stairwell and confronted the man outside the front door. He stood there, sweating, nostrils flaring, gesturing wildly and screaming for help. As other units began arriving, the man greeted them by pulling down his pants. Hiking them back up, he lunged forward.

“First thing I did was use the Taser,” Hardeman recalled, referring to a stun dart he fired at him. “He pulled it clear out of his body and threw it on the ground. So we Tased him a second time. Still nothing. As I’m standing there, I look over at my backup and there are some of the same guys who’d been giving me a hard time in the debates.”

At that moment, Hardeman wondered if the others would follow his lead or revert to their old ways--as Foothill Division officers had done to Rodney King after he had been Tasered twice. But this time, unlike that night last March, no one hoisted his baton. Instead, an officer sprayed Mace at the drunken suspect. As the man clawed at his face, the officers piled on, cuffing him and clapping iron restraints on his legs. It would be another four hours before he would shake off the liquor and ask innocently, “What did I do?”

The officers began heading back to their cars, still spitting, coughing and rubbing their eyes from the effects of the Mace. Hardeman made his way toward one of his adversaries, a cop who had argued with him in a roll call debate.

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“Thanks for giving it a chance,” Hardeman said, reaching out to shake the man’s hand.

“Yeah,” was the man’s only reply. But he accepted Hardeman’s hand.

It was a start.

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