Lives on the Line : Being a cop is never easy. Especially now, when tension on the street is high and morale is low.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pamela Pitcher, Samuel Rhone and David Schwacher are rookie L.A. cops on their first assignments at a time when tension on the streets is high and morale within the police department is low.

Since the beating of Rodney King more than 2 1/2 years ago, the LAPD has faced public criticism and scrutiny, riots, a wave of reforms and new leadership, and the trials and impending imprisonment of former colleagues. Daily, its members grapple with an increasingly violent city and outdated equipment and have gone two years without a raise.

In May, View profiled the three young officers, just after their graduation from the Los Angeles Police Academy--the first class to train under new Chief Willie Williams, who has moved to implement reforms urged by the Christopher Commission. The panel called for curbs on excessive force, new disciplinary procedures and an emphasis on "community-based" police work.

Pitcher, Rhone and Schwacher--selected for this series by the department--spend their time on patrol with training officers. Here, they talk about their first months on the job:

Pamela Pitcher

Pitcher, 25, is from Upland, a graduate of California State University, Northridge, and is married to a police officer. President of her academy class, she was assigned to the Foothill Division in the east San Fernando Valley, where she works 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. "All I eat is breakfast--when I get up in the evening, when I get off in the morning, sometimes in between."

In five months, she's handled a broad range of calls, from a woman who dialed 911 "because she wanted us to tell her 11-year-old son to eat his dinner--we explained the importance of the 911 system and what it's to be used for," to a "man-with-a-gun" call. "He was very drunk, didn't speak English, and was a little belligerent. But I speak Spanish, and I just stood behind our car door and kept ordering him to keep his hands on his head and not move. The first time it happens, when you know there's a loaded gun, you can't help thinking, is he going to kill his family? Kill you?"

There have been homicides, stolen vehicle chases and, saddest of all, a "child abuse in progress" call. "It got to me," she says, "but you can't get so emotional that you sit down and cry with the child. In a way, everything we deal with is sad, but it's part of the job. You have emotion, but you have to control it."

She has had preparation--the "hypotheticals" thrown at her by a training officer while they drove around. "He'd say, 'This happens, or that happens, what are you going to do?' making you aware of all the options. And he'd let me handle things. Obviously if I started to make a mistake, he'd have stepped in. But if my training officers overprotected me, they'd be doing me a disservice. I'd have a false sense of security, and would be a threat to myself and to my partners."

To Pitcher, community-based policing means "involving the community, helping them understand the problems in their area and how they can help us, or what they can do instead of continuing to call the police. There's a purpose in developing this partnership. If something happens, you have a basic relationship already. And if you help them solve their problems, you can prevent problems from continuing."

Pitcher does not have, or will not voice, concerns about police behavior in the King beating, and whether it could happen again, feeling it's too "easy to speculate on what should or would have happened if you had been there, but you're not aware of everything that was happening. It's like Monday-morning quarterbacking."

She can't imagine having to deal with a situation like the King beating "because I respect the people I work with. . . . You choose law enforcement because you have a desire to serve. There are wonderful people in the profession, not people who want to drive fast and carry a gun. The screening now, the psychological testing, would weed out the people who have those tendencies. The person who wants to walk around in a uniform and tell people what to do is just not going to get in."

She doesn't think morale is "as bad as the public and the media are making it out to be, concerned that we're going to do the 'blue flu' bit, a sickout. We can be unhappy about the situation--the condition of our equipment, the fact that our contract dispute has gone on for years and we're still in limbo. But it's not affecting our performance; we're not going to give you lesser service." . . . We have a different relationship with the public (than the DWP). If you make the public think you'll abandon them, community-based policing will be out the window."

Samuel Rhone

Rhone, 31, was raised in Compton and graduated from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He worked a half dozen years in the LAPD's supply department before applying to the academy, where he won the equivalent of a class spirit cup. He works 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. in the Southwest Division, below Exposition Park.

Patrol has already given him "a little bit of everything--robberies, child abuse, traffic accidents, shoplifting, rape, forgeries, stolen vehicles." He's had four homicides: a man found dead in his car after being missing a week, a woman held up on her doorstep who had a gun and exchanged shots with the robber before being killed, a man gunned down in a restaurant by someone he knew, and a man beaten to death with a crowbar by car thieves. Terrible, yes, says Rhone. "You feel for the family, you feel for the person, but it's just part of the job."

Child abuse is harder, he says, citing the case of a little boy whose mother took him to the hospital with a broken arm: "When they took his shirt off, his back was black and blue. He was a real nice little kid. He and his brother were taken into custody for the time being. You think about it. You think what could this little kid, 6 years old, have done to deserve this?"

Rhone's current training officer coordinates Neighborhood Watch meetings, giving him extra community interaction, but the goal of all such activity is the same: "Better understanding of what we're doing, better communication. We need community help and involvement. If (people) see something out of the ordinary, they shouldn't be afraid to let us know, shouldn't just close their curtains, close their doors, and say, 'I heard some screaming, but I didn't want to get involved.' They have to realize that if something happens, it could (also) happen to them," he says, "and it will keep happening until they say, 'Enough is enough, I'm going to tell.' "

The King case, he says, does come up on the street. "You'll have some guy, very hostile, who doesn't want to go with the program--first thing out of his mouth is, 'Oh, you're going to beat me like Rodney King.' "

He stresses an officer's right to protect himself, the need for people to understand that "if they approach officers in a threatening way with a weapon, there's a likelihood they'd get shot. You don't want to overreact, but if your life is threatened, you have to take appropriate action."

In the King case, he says, the officers "felt their lives were threatened and took action, but they were convicted of going beyond what was appropriate, of stepping over the line. It was the steps they took, the severity of the beating."

Like Pitcher, Rhone has seen no questionable police behavior, but, he says, "I became a police officer to uphold the law, not to break it, and if I saw something, I'd take appropriate action. In the long run, it would help the department, not hurt it. The fact that it would be known this type of activity was not tolerated would help the trust between us and the community."

He agrees that morale is "absolutely low, because we've gone two years without a raise and almost that without a contract. Meantime, the call load has increased, and we're asked to do our job with outdated equipment. In Southwest, you go to check out a vehicle and it won't go, or the in-car computer doesn't work. But the attitude of the City Council is, 'You chose this field, stop bitching and take what we give you.' They're more concerned with increasing the force from 7,600 officers to 10,600. We're saying, 'Take care of us first.' "

David Schwacher

Schwacher, 31, came to the LAPD after 10 years as a Marine. He was "class leader" at the academy, serving as the official liaison between academy administration and students. Schwacher, a Milwaukee native, is married and has two small children. He's assigned to the Northeast Division, above Dodger Stadium, working 6 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Patrol duty, he says, is just "what I expected--different every single day. Even if it's the same kind of call, there's always a different outcome, a different attitude in the people. A lot of the calls are domestic violence, from verbal arguments to battered wives." There have been six or eight "death investigations--not murder scenes, but dead bodies, overdose, suicides. It's terrible, but you don't get personally involved."

Staying impersonal is harder, says Schwacher, "any time you deal with children who are victims of crimes like abuse or neglect. The juvenile units usually do the calls, but I've gone on a couple where we had to take the children into custody. In one case, the mother had been arrested, the boyfriend took off, and three little kids--3, 4 and 5--were just running around. I don't know how they ate. There was no food in the apartment, and it took three days for somebody to call it in."

He prefers the "hot shots"--calls that come in when "something's going on or just happened. You may be able to stop something, or get the person who did it, and the excitement level's higher, the adrenaline starts flowing. You and your partner talk about it as you're going there and you're more up for what's going to happen than with something like a burglary, where you come after it happens and just take information."

The excitement is not without fear: "If guns are involved, you know the potential for violence is there, and could escalate. But I think you have to have a sense of fear. It keeps you on your toes."

To Schwacher, community-based policing means "taking an interest instead of just doing your eight hours. It promotes involvement, so law enforcement and the community can work together, rather than having an us/them syndrome. They can help us out, be more willing to give us information, though they may refuse to be identified."

He prefers not to "second-guess" another officer's actions if he wasn't there: "Everything depends on how the person is acting. You have to react to their actions, hoping they don't do anything that leads to a physical match. You keep one step ahead, trying to think what they could do, looking for something to alleviate the situation, and just hope you'll make the right judgment, not jump the gun."

He doesn't worry about his own reactions, believing reactions depend on "your maturity, the training you received and your own personal control. Given my training, my experience in the Marine Corps, I feel real confident I won't overreact."

In Schwacher's view, the police have been exercising similar control in their contract dispute. They're aware that they must keep the public's good will, maintain their "positive image, or there'd be more altercations. People might try to take more actions into their own hands, and when a call came in, both parties would be on the defensive."

They don't have a contract yet, of course.

"You can see the frustration of it," Schwacher says. "But all these officers are still going out and doing their job, still putting their lives on the line."

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