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Long Beach Police Suffer New Setback : Law enforcement: Chief is temporarily removed from office in investigation of him and his top assistant. The trouble-plagued agency has been threatened with being disbanded.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long Beach Police Chief Lawrence Binkley’s temporary removal from his post last week capped years of turmoil in a department that has been so rocked by controversy that it is in danger of being disbanded.

Binkley and Assistant Chief Eugene Brizzolara are under investigation after in-house complaints that are swirling around the chief’s authoritarian management style, which has so badly demoralized the troops that officers took to scrawling obscene graffiti about him on bathroom walls.

Complaints that Binkley runs the state’s fifth-largest police agency with an iron fist are nothing new from the contentious police union, which represents the vast majority of the department’s 672 officers. But this month, for the first time, such concerns crossed union lines when high-ranking commanders stepped forward to complain.

That prompted an investigation by City Manager James Hankla, who relegated the 51-year-old chief to unspecified “special assignments” on Dec. 23. While Binkley is working out of his home, Brizzolara is on vacation and has filed for a stress-related disability leave. Neither would agree to be interviewed for this story.

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Internal wars have been raging for years in the department, where at the height of friction in 1989, Binkley complained of receiving death threats and Brizzolara reportedly kept a loaded shotgun behind his desk.

“If you don’t think that’s a dog-eat-dog environment, you’ve never seen one,” said Long Beach City Councilman Les Robbins. “There’s so much dissension between labor and management you can cut the tension in that environment with a knife.”

While the department was mired in internal conflict, crime spiraled out of control throughout Long Beach--once a mostly white, low-crime town of mid-Westerners that grew by the 1980s into an ethnically diverse city of more than 400,000.

But while the population soared, the Police Department remained stagnant, with no increase in staffing or new technology to keep up with the changing times. In 1989, the effects of neglect were showing, and Long Beach suffered a bigger increase in violent crime than any other major California city.

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The department’s once-lustrous image was tarnished by scandals that ranged from poor crime-solving records--the worst in the state for most of the last 15 years--to a detective bureau so understaffed that rape cases weren’t investigated until months after they occurred.

Over the last two years, Binkley and his administrative staff have spent weeks in court defending themselves against their own officers.

One Orange County law firm filed at least five 1st Amendment lawsuits against Binkley, whom officers accused of violating their free-speech rights by attempting to control what they said publicly about the chief and the department. The department won one, lost two and settled two, costing the city more than $56,000 so far.

In yet another lawsuit, two former policewomen accused the department of sexual harassment and won $3.1 million in September--the largest judgment against the city in a decade.

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While the department brass was fending off allegations of mismanagement, some officers were attracting bad press of their own. One sergeant was arrested this year on rape charges, another was charged with the off-duty shooting of an Orange County motorist and a third was accused of staging a hit-and-run accident to cover up a traffic collision he had while on duty.

“It seems like the controversy never stops in the Police Department. Since right after I was sworn into office, Don Jackson hit. And it hasn’t stopped since,” Robbins said, referring to the 1989 sting operation by a black activist who set out to prove that Long Beach police were racists.

In that incident, Jackson and a friend were stopped by two officers while driving on Pacific Coast Highway. During a confrontation, one of the officers appeared to push Jackson through a plate-glass window, shattering it. Charges of misconduct against the officers were dismissed in May after a jury split 11 to 1 in favor of acquittal. But the incident, secretly filmed by an NBC camera crew, was broadcast nationally, further tarnishing the department’s image.

All the while, a lack of faith in the Police Department seemed to be swelling in the community. One exclusive neighborhood considered hiring private security guards and another threatened to secede from the city. Residents’ complaints about poor police response were pouring in, Asian and Latino gang members were killing one another in a turf war, and officials at one North Long Beach middle school erected a concrete wall to protect students and teachers from stray bullets.

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While the growing city seemed to need more police protection than ever, the number of police officers dwindled. City officials accused some officers of claiming an inordinate number of injuries to collect benefits, of taking excessive amounts of time off, and of attempting to retire early by claiming bogus disabilities. According to one city report, Long Beach officers claimed injury nearly three times more than the statewide police average last year.

The number of officers off work further hindered an already understaffed department, officials said. To combat crime and bolster the depleted force, the City Council signed a contract last year with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to patrol parts of Long Beach--the first time any city in the state required two law enforcement agencies to provide basic police services.

The turmoil in the Police Department is peaking at a time when Long Beach is wrestling with a number of crises, including the departure of the Navy, massive layoffs at McDonnell Douglas and the loss of a $3-billion theme park proposed by the Walt Disney Co.--all contributing to financial problems that have done little to help a department sorely in need of more funds and officers.

City officials, impressed by the Sheriff’s Department’s performance and seeking ways to save money, are considering turning law enforcement over to deputies citywide and disbanding the 83-year-old department.

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City Council members are divided on whether to dismantle the department and make Long Beach the largest city in the state without a municipal police force. Many suspect the decision will be made by the voters, possibly as early as June.

Whether the most recent controversy involving the agency’s two highest-ranking administrators is serious enough to seal the fate of the beleaguered department is still unknown.

“It couldn’t be more poorly timed” said Councilman Doug Drummond, a retired Long Beach police commander who served with the department for 25 years and is calling for its abolition.

But Councilman Evan Anderson Braude said the city’s personnel investigation into Binkley and Brizzolara “won’t play any role as far as I’m concerned” in deciding whether the department survives.

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“If you don’t like the chief, you can change the chief,” Braude said. “You don’t throw out the whole department because you don’t like management.”

The investigation, made public this month, concerns allegations that Brizzolara attempted to coach Cmdrs. Alvin Van Otterloo and John Bretza about testimony they were to give in a trial in which the three were accused of false arrest. It is further alleged that Brizzolara and Binkley tried to force the commanders to take a stress-related disability, according to the commanders’ attorney, Tom McIntosh.

Two weeks into his investigation, City Manager Hankla removed Binkley from the post he has held since 1987 and appointed Deputy Chief Bill Ellis as acting chief, marking a dramatic shift in the chief’s traditionally warm relationship with City Hall.

Although Hankla says that the investigation is nothing more than a review, it opened the floodgates on complaints from other high-ranking police administrators who said Binkley ostracized anyone who disagreed with him and even controlled what civic organizations his command staff joined, according to police sources.

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Much of their criticism concerned the totalitarian management style preferred by Binkley, a stoical, sometimes stern-faced man who is respected by some and reviled by others.

Union officials, who have been at war with Binkley since he took the department’s reins, contended that he initiated internal investigations for such frivolous infractions as wearing a tarnished badge. The chief mailed letters questioning the loyalty of officers he felt were not supporting him and ordered supervisors to follow officers on patrol to make sure they did not take long lunch breaks or otherwise slack off on the job.

Binkley’s iron rule created a state of paranoia in the department, many officers said. After the number of internal investigations soared in 1988, one officer complained: “The chief is acting like we’re all racist and immoral and need to be whipped into shape.”

But Binkley’s supporters note that the chief has accomplished a great deal since he assumed command of a department that had for years been neglected and underfunded.

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Binkley is credited with improving relations with the city’s various minority groups by creating a foot patrol beat along Cambodian-dominated Anaheim Street and establishing police advisory groups with women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans and gays. He ordered all of his officers to participate in sensitivity training and racial relations classes.

The chief has also worked to ferret out brutality in the department by reviewing closed cases for possible misconduct. Indeed, Binkley conducted his own sting of officers to determine whether citizens’ complaints were being properly handled. He established what he called an “early warning system,” alerting him to any officer with seven sustained citizen complaints.

In a 1989 interview, Binkley said his department was “not professional enough” and in serious need of more training and a change of attitude.

“It’s predominantly a white male organization that’s a very closed society,” Binkley said at the time. “They don’t mix with other law enforcement agencies as much as other agencies do. They don’t train with other agencies. They have difficulties with the gay community, the black community, the Hispanic community, the Asian community, and they have difficulties inside (the department) with females.”

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He dismissed the union’s complaints saying, “They don’t like discipline.”

Binkley has been perceived by officers as an outsider from the start, coming not from the ranks of Long Beach but from the Los Angeles Police Department, where he was a 24-year veteran who oversaw security at the 1984 Olympics and last served as a commander.

Binkley has often said he inherited an undisciplined department that had been ignored for 15 years. His supporters at City Hall agree that when Binkley left the Los Angeles Police Department to assume command in Long Beach, he took on a tough job. The officers needed training, the equipment was broken down and the police union, powerful and feisty, had clashed with chiefs before.

“I know he was brought in to bring order to a department that had difficulties. I don’t think it would have been possible for anyone in his position to not have personality conflicts. It was inherent in the job,” said Councilman Wallace Edgerton, who called Binkley a “man of style and grace.”

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Even councilmen like Robbins, a sheriff’s deputy by trade who wants to see his fellow deputies patrolling Long Beach, defended Binkley’s performance.

“I don’t blame him for thinking that the only way he can survive is to be Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Robbins said, noting the Police Officers Assn.'s forceful reputation. “I think Larry Binkley brought the Police Department into the 20th Century.”

Meanwhile, until the dust settles, it remains to be seen whether this latest stormy chapter in the history of the Long Beach Police Department is its last.

As Councilman Drummond, the former commander who spent a quarter-century on the department, put it: “In all my years, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

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