Los Angeles Police Officer Rodney Forrest had to make a decision the day he confronted Luis Bernabe Gonzalez in the aisle of a San Fernando Valley hardware store.
Moments earlier, Gonzalez, a 33-year-old ex-convict, had barreled through a red light and struck a patrol car--injuring two officers--before running into the store.
“He was a fleeing felon who probably could have hurt somebody else if he had gotten back in the car,” Forrest said.
Rather than using guns or batons, Forrest and other officers chose to wrestle Gonzalez into submission. The result: Three of them ended up in the hospital with sprained necks, arms and backs.
Two years after the furor and legal actions that followed the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King caused some LAPD officers to hesitate to use force, more than two dozen officers interviewed by The Times say they are still confused over what rules apply to the use of force against suspected criminals. And that confusion, they say, has altered the way they do their jobs.
The way they patrol, subdue suspects and write reports has changed. The criminals they confront appear to know or feel their hesitancy and are more combative, less willing to cooperate when being arrested, they say.
By contrast, critics of the LAPD say some of the changes are overdue, and welcome them as proper restraint. But some officers counter that the modifications have not necessarily produced a better Police Department.
Because ultimately, the officers argue, it’s the public that loses by having a less aggressive police force that is less willing to initiate arrests, especially difficult ones, because officers fear they may be criticized or charged with criminal offenses should they strike or shoot a suspect.
Street patrol officers interviewed for this article said they predict scenes like the Gonzalez arrest will become increasingly common as a result of heightened anxieties brought on by the recent conviction of two Los Angeles police officers for violating King’s civil rights.
And some of their resentment is aimed at their own superiors in the department, who they regard as more worried about avoiding politically touchy incidents than defending the street cops.
‘OFFICERS ARE AFRAID’
“It’s the wave of the future,” said Forrest, a 22-year-veteran assigned to the department’s West Valley station. “Officers are afraid of civil litigation and that the administration won’t back them up. . . . They’re caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Since the King incident, LAPD officers have made fewer arrests and used force less frequently, yet they have been hit with more complaints of excessive force.
In 1991, the department made 206,163 arrests, a 22% decrease from 1990, according to police statistics. Yet, excessive force complaints jumped 46% during the same period, to 252. (Figures for 1992 have not yet been released.)
Despite the increased complaints against them, according to the officers’ own use-of-force reports--which they must file whenever they employ any force greater than a firm grip to take a suspect into custody--force was used in 2,168 cases in 1992, a 54% drop from 1990’s 4,755.
James Fyfe, a former New York City police officer and professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, considers the situation improved if L.A. police are more hesitant to use force. Fyfe and UC Berkeley professor Jerome Skolnick co-wrote a book on police brutality entitled “Above the Law: Police and the Use of Excessive Force.”
“The LAPD has been insular and out of touch.” Fyfe said. “Clearly, the use of force there has been out of line. If an officer spends more time and thinks more carefully about his actions, that’s a good thing. . . . This may ultimately improve the quality of police work.”
Officers say the issue is not so cut and dried.
For example, while the department’s policy is clear to them, some feel that members of the public react with outrage even when the use of force stays within guidelines, introducing another element of confusion.
Officers cited the critical media coverage of the King beating and the prosecution of officers in federal and civil courts as fueling their fear and confusion.
They said they felt besieged by the news media, the courts, pressure groups, politicians and the public, who don’t understand how much force it requires to take a combative suspect into custody without getting into the kind of “fair-fight” brawl that will injure the officers.
Also, doubts were repeatedly voiced that officers would be backed by superiors if they became involved in a force controversy.
“It’s like having a guard dog in the back yard and then shooting him for attacking a burglar who gets in,” said an officer assigned to a San Fernando Valley station, who asked not to be identified. “Isn’t it kind of ludicrous for shooting a dog for doing what he was trained for, but ignoring what the burglar is doing?”
As a result, patrol sergeants said officers pepper them with questions on how much force to use and that they examine use-of-force reports more carefully than before.
The reports themselves have become a major factor in the way they do their jobs, some officers said. Fearful that an encounter with a suspect will come back to haunt them, some officers spend as much as two hours filling out reports that previously took just an hour, hoping to erect a paperwork shield and a base for a future legal defense. They reduce their patrol time to give themselves time to write.
Other officers said they avoid initiating some types of confrontations altogether, like stopping and questioning a known gang member cruising in a rival gang’s turf or a suspicious person loitering outside a business. Such routine stops are known as “proactive policing,” aimed at thwarting a crime before it happens.
“An officer can go down an alley where the gangsters hang out or he can go down a main street where nothing is happening,” said Sgt. Tim Day of the department’s Van Nuys Division.
“Why would you choose to go down the alley when the public doesn’t seem to support you for your efforts?”
Still, in cases where a suspect is endangering the public, all officers interviewed said they instinctively would not hesitate to use force.
Sgt. Mike Sayre, a 15-year veteran who has patrolled the rough streets of Hollywood and most recently Boyle Heights, described it as a war between the hearts and minds of his fellow officers.
“The heart of every police officer out there wants to go out and do a good job, but the minds says, ‘If you do and your complained against, you’ll ruin your career, you may get sued, you may even get indicted.’ Their minds have won out over their hearts.”
PLAYING ON FEARS
That change, Sayre complained, has encouraged savvy criminals to play on officers’ fears.
“I’ve had suspects come right up and say, ‘If you don’t let me go I’m going to beef (file a complaint against) the officers,’ ” Sayre said. “I mean blatant lies because they understand now that we are vulnerable.”
Sergeants said they spend more time investigating complaints against officers, in part because the public is more inclined to file them, no matter the magnitude of the perceived violation.
For example, one sergeant told of a citizen who complained that a patrol car had parked in a red zone outside a guitar store on Ventura Boulevard. Sayre said that he recently spent nearly an entire day investigating a use-of-force complaint filed by a suspect who tried to escape from a patrol car.
The man later admitted he made up the accusation.
“Instead of taking eight hours of my day to write up a use-of-force and justify the actions of an officer when somebody tried to escape, that time should have been used going up to narcotics locations and catching dealers, keeping the gangs in line and keeping cars from being stolen and houses from being burglarized,” Sayre said.
Forrest said that in the current climate it is also not unusual for suspects to “openly resist” arrests.
“It seems as though when they’re doing wrong they act like they should not be hassled by the police,” Forrest said. “They don’t have respect for the law anymore.”
After using the swarm technique to take Gonzalez into custody, for example, Forrest and his partner had to forcibly handcuff the suspect and carry him to the patrol car when he refused to walk. Despite officers’ repeated requests, Gonzalez subsequently refused to get inside the car, Forrest said.
“This guy was totally out of hand,” Forrest said. After numerous attempts, four officers were able to seat Gonzalez.
But before officers could relax, the handcuffed Gonzalez began scrambling for the front seat. Again officers struggled with him, said Forrest, who added that he sprained his back twice during the struggle.
Forrest and two fellow officers were hospitalized for their injuries. Two other officers were also hospitalized with more serious injuries to their necks, backs and heads. A police spokesman said reports on the incident could not be released, pending possible litigation by others involved.
In February, Gonzalez pleaded no contest to charges of injuring the officers while driving drunk and was sentenced to two years and four months in prison, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said.
A request by The Times to interview two specific officers on use-of-force issues was denied by the LAPD’s press office. Lt. John Dunkin said officers are no longer being permitted to discuss while on duty their views on using force.
All officers quoted in this story were interviewed prior to Dunkin’s statement to The Times, including Deputy Chief Mark A. Kroeker, who commands the department’s five Valley divisions.
THE ‘GRAY ZONE’
Kroeker agreed that in the minds of some officers the “gray zone” on when they should use force has broadened.
“At least among some officers it is being said that the lines are unclear. It’s vague in their mind as to where the line should be drawn,” Kroeker said. “This of course is a dilemma for us.”
Kroeker as well as numerous officers stressed that a policy can look perfect on paper but be only a rough guide where it matters most: on the street.
“It is incumbent upon management to make the policy as clear as possible, but you cannot put every policy into a precise definition,” Kroeker said. “No matter how you stack it up, it all comes down to the judgment of the officers.”
To address officers’ confusion, LAPD supervisors recently held discussions with patrol officers about the proper use of force. The sessions, ordered by Chief Willie L. Williams, were designed to clarify department policy and show beat officers that they have management’s support.
“I don’t want officers feeling like their hands have been tied, like they can’t arrest lawbreakers, like they can’t use their reasonable and necessary force,” Kroeker said. “But I also don’t want officers to say, ‘Since I’m not sure about our policy, it’s OK to use excessive force.’ ”
But explaining use of force has proven a tough task for some LAPD administrators.
Capt. Tim McBride of the department’s Foothill Division, for example, in December took the unusual step of apologizing to patrol officers after saying he would rather see an officer suffer a minor injury than be charged with shooting a suspect unnecessarily.
McBride--whose division polices the area where King was beaten--said his original comments were part of a larger discussion on the appropriate use of force, in which he said that officers should not use illegal force to avoid a minor injury.
“I said, ‘If I had to make a choice I would rather see an officer with a minor injury than an indictment by the district attorney’s office,’ ” McBride said in an interview following the event. “An officer followed up and asked, ‘Would you rather see an officer injured than a shooting?”
“I said: ‘No.’ ”
But as his comments spread among officers, McBride said, they were interpreted to mean that he was critical of the fatal shooting Nov. 9 of Efrain Lopez, who was shot nine times while advancing on officers with a broom handle. McBride said his comments related to the use of force in general and were not a condemnation of the officers involved in that shooting.
Some officers said their confusion intensified when department experts gave conflicting testimony in the King beating trials.
For example, when Sgt. Charles L. Duke Jr., a SWAT team leader, interpreted the Rodney King videotape for the federal jury, he testified that every kick and baton blow to King by officers Laurence M. Powell and Timothy E. Wind was reasonable and necessary (although Duke has since said that he believes Officer Theodore J. Briseno’s kick was unreasonable).
But Sgt. Mark John Conta, a streetwise cop who spent 17 years patrolling Los Angeles, told jurors that the four officers acted in “clear violation” of LAPD policy.
The federal jury subsequently convicted Powell and Sgt. Stacey C. Koon of violating King’s civil rights but acquitted Wind and Briseno.
DEFINING THE GUIDELINES
Interpreting the guidelines for the proper use of force has also grown difficult for officers, in part because of conflicting decisions handed down by juries and the LAPD.
Consider the case of Officer Clark Baker. A 12-year department veteran and ex-Marine assigned to the Valley Traffic Division, Baker was convicted in February by a Los Angeles Municipal Court jury of battery for slapping and kicking a 21-year-old Salvadoran immigrant in July, 1991, while citing him for jaywalking.
Following the incident, Baker agreed to undergo anger counseling. But last year, after an internal police review board found Baker innocent of wrongdoing, he decided to go to trial instead of completing the counseling.
“We went to trial and we lost,” said Baker’s attorney, Bob Wilson, despite testimony by Duke that Baker acted within LAPD policy in his encounter with Tomas Chavez.
Citing the discrepancy between the jury’s verdict of guilt and the Police Department Board of Rights’ finding of innocence, Judge Veronica Simmons McBeth said in sentencing Baker that she “had no confidence the LAPD, if allowed to handle this internally, would take steps to make sure this does not happen again.”
Adding to the confusion were comments made that day by Baker’s superiors, including LAPD Capt. John Mutz, who called Baker “one of the best officers we have.” Some of Baker’s other superiors voiced similar views. “I’d put him in the top 10 of the division,” Lt. John Mitchell said.
The jury deadlocked 10 to 2 for conviction on a second count alleging that Baker used excessive force against Chavez, who won a $15,000 settlement from the city. Baker was sentenced in February to 350 hours of community service and ordered not to carry a gun on the job as a term of probation. He was subsequently reassigned to a desk job.
Though he declined to comment on his case, Baker said he believes his fellow officers have indeed become “more hesitant to use force because it doesn’t matter what the department feels is reasonable and necessary,” Baker said. “All that matters is what 12 jurors inflamed by the media’s coverage of the Rodney King incident feels is reasonable and necessary.
“Before, I was one of the most productive officers in the department, and now I’m one of the most ineffective,” Baker said. “The public is being shortchanged.”
A LOOK AHEAD
Some welcome the concept of a new LAPD that uses less force. Others say that significant changes have yet to materialize.
“I don’t see that it’s a bad thing that officers hesitate to use force,” said Robin Toma, staff attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. Toma cited a study that determined that female officers are more effective at making arrests without employing force because they are better at de-escalating confrontations with suspects.
Last year, the City Council passed a resolution backed by Williams requiring the Police Department to boost the number of women in its ranks from 14% to 44%. Toma believes that change “will have a beneficial effect in terms of having more police officers who confront conflict and manage it successfully without having to use force.”
Karol Heppe, executive director of Police Watch, a nonprofit organization that counsels victims of alleged police abuse, said that her office received 3,888 complaints of police misconduct in 1991, a 46% increase over the previous year. She attributed the rise in part to greater awareness about filing such complaints following the King beating.
Last year, however, complaints filed with Heppe’s organization dropped 37% to 2,442, which is below the 1990 level. Heppe also said that of the complaints received, an estimated 10% fewer cases were referred to lawyers for prosecution. Cases are referred to lawyers based on the magnitude and severity of the complaint.
The changes indicate “there may be fewer severe cases of brutality,” Heppe conceded, “but there are just as many harassing detentions and violations of civil rights as before. I would be very hesitant to say that police officers are using less force.”
The department’s policy on force is under review, and modifications are being considered, Kroeker said. The changes are supposed to simplify the existing policy, making it clearer and reducing ambiguity for officers in the field.
One sergeant said he believes the issue will always be clouded, because it is impossible to formulate a cookie-cutter policy that fits nicely over every situation.
“No two days are alike, and no two family disputes or robbery in progress calls are alike,” he said.
But solutions do exist, others say.
The LAPD, said Toma of the ACLU, “will always have problems with use of force. . . . Those problems will continue as long as there is no independent civilian review of complaints of police misconduct.”
But as Sayre added: “If every officer said, ‘You’re under arrest’ and every bad guy said, ‘OK,’ then there would be no use of force.”
Jim Herron Zamora contributed to this story.
CHIEF’S BALANCING ACT: Willie Williams is under fire from officers for beefing up Internal Affairs. B1
Resorting to Force
The following is the LAPD’s written policy on the use of force:
240.10 USE OF FORCE. In a complex urban society, officers are daily confronted with situations where control must be exercised to effect arrests and to protect the public safety. Control may be achieved through advice, warnings, and persuasion, or by the use of physical force. While the use of reasonable physical force may be necessary in situations which cannot be otherwise controlled, force may not be resorted to unless other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or would clearly be ineffective under the particular circumstances. Officers are permitted to use whatever force that is reasonable and necessary to protect others or themselves from bodily harm.
LAPD officers are taught to use five different levels of force and they are expected to choose the appropriate level to resolve a situation. Officers are free to choose among the levels as they see fit, and are not required to employ a lesser level before moving on to the next. The different types of force are referred to as an officer’s “grab bag,” meaning that officers can choose from their “tools” to effect an arrest. The levels include:
* Verbalization: Spoken commands that can range from “You have to go to jail, so why don’t you cooperate?” to “If you don’t drop that gun, I’m going to kill you.”
* Firm grip: Grasping a suspect at the wrist and elbow.
* Compliance holds: Arm and wrist locks and twist locks.
* Non-lethal force: Use of batons, Taser guns, pepper gas and martial-arts techniques.
* Deadly force: Gunfire or the neck-squeezing carotid hold, which can kill a suspect.
Although LAPD arrests were down from 1990 to 1991, more complaints of excessive force were filed. Officers’ reports say use of force decreased 54% from 1990 to 1992. Arrests: -2.2% Complaints: +46%