They’re still proud to wear their badges. But as they listened to the ugly boasts spinning out of the Mark Fuhrman tapes Tuesday, Los Angeles police officers across the city expressed shame, anger or a sickening feeling of betrayal.
Rookie and veteran officers alike insisted that Fuhrman’s racist comments about beating and framing suspects did not reflect their Police Department. Yet they acknowledged that the tapes undeniably had dirtied the department’s image--and made it tougher for them to do their jobs.
Vigorous calls for reform, which echoed ever louder from politicians, activists and the LAPD’s top brass Tuesday, failed to soothe the rank-and-file frustration.
“The people who are anti-police just got louder,” Officer Chris Montoya said grimly, before going on patrol in South-Central Los Angeles.
Miles away in a sweltering Eastside parking lot, a veteran detective lit a cigarette, surveyed a street busy with the people he’d sworn to serve and protect and spat out his disgust for Fuhrman:
“I have to come to work and have these citizens hate me,” he said. “I see them hate me because I’m a white police officer, and I might as well be a Mark Fuhrman.”
He paused and added, “This doesn’t help us as a city, either. We were barely healing--and now this.”
That refrain rang from station to station, as officers wondered how the long-suffering department--and the equally battered city--would pull out of the Fuhrman furor. They thought back to the Rodney G. King beating. The 1992 riots. The public dressing-down of Chief Willie L. Williams this spring. And now this.
“Every time you turn around, we’re getting slammed,” a Hollenbeck Division motorcycle officer said. Although the LAPD has 8,130 officers, he added, a sensational story such as the Fuhrman tapes dumps disgrace on the entire department. “One person does something and we’re all guilty of it,” he said. “Guilty of everything.”
Williams and Mayor Richard Riordan vowed to pull reforms out of the outrage. And Urban League President John Mack urged citizens Tuesday to push beyond their fury. But despite the rhetoric, the officers walking beats, sweating in their dark-blue uniforms and bulletproof vests, said they are encountering hostility on the street.
“We have criminals out there who look for any excuse they can think of to challenge the police and the system,” said Officer Enedino Espinoza, a seven-year LAPD veteran. “I have to tell you, some of them are winning now.”
Seizing on the Fuhrman tapes, one man began railing at the LAPD for setting out to get him when he received a parking ticket the other day, Officer Amber Morales said.
“I’ve heard more about this department being racist in the last two weeks than in the whole five years I’ve been here,” she added, shaking her head. “It’s made our job more difficult.”
Many officers pinned the blame on Fuhrman.
They blamed him for the questions they receive from horrified friends--"Is it really like that? Do you really do that?” are typical questions. They blamed him too for the fresh challenges on the beat, for the new insults citizens hurl their way. And finally, they blamed him for the turmoil they know will come as the department again convulses in recriminations, remorse and reforms.
In their rage, some officers refused to consider Fuhrman, who retired from the LAPD last month, as a colleague.
“I’m glad he’s retired,” Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker said.
Other officers sought to deflect attention back to what they believe are the real issues in the O.J. Simpson trial. Echoing words that prosecutors used Tuesday, Sgt. James Gordon said: “It’s pissing me off because we’re missing the main issue--did O. J. Simpson kill his wife? Mark Fuhrman’s personal beliefs don’t have anything to do with that. To set [Simpson] up, we’d have to be involved in a scandal beyond your wildest dreams.”
To some community activists, however, the Fuhrman tapes are an enormous scandal--distinct from the Simpson case and far more important.
“Beyond the trial, the Fuhrman tape revelations break the longstanding code of silence that has been in operation in the LAPD by too many corrupt racist officers,” Mack said. “The other Fuhrman types need to be purged from the department. . . . There should be a system of incentives and rewards provided to those officers who demonstrate an enlightened value system.”
Like Mack, politician after politician emphasized Tuesday that most LAPD officers do not harbor the same attitudes that Fuhrman expressed on the tapes.
Some citizens also stood up to support the LAPD.
About 300 people packed into the Police Commission’s first community meeting in South-Central Los Angeles on Tuesday night, applauding the department but hooting with catcalls every time Fuhrman’s name was mentioned.
Harold Greenberg, a member of the area’s community police advisory board, told the commission that his neighborhood seeks a partnership with the LAPD. “We’re not against the LAPD,” he said. “We want the LAPD, and we want them here, and we want them now.”
Police Commission Chairwoman Deirdre Hill, who angered residents by cutting short their comments at the boisterous meeting, called for a full public airing of the tapes.
So did several leading politicians, including Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Hernandez. “It’s clear that not every officer in the LAPD has the same views as Fuhrman,” Hernandez said. “But problems do exist, and I think full disclosure would be healing, not divisive.”
Tuesday’s court session did not provide the full disclosure that Hernandez called for, but many of the most shocking snippets of the 12 hours of tapes were played aloud. At the LAPD’s Newton Street Division, dozens of officers were “glued to the TV,” fascinated--and often appalled--by the revelations, Field Supervisor Michael Sledd said.
Glumly, he concluded: “It doesn’t look good for the department.”
And it didn’t feel good to many officers.
“It’s very disappointing and disheartening, some of the things he said,” Sgt. John Thomas said. “To think he could harbor that type of attitude and be on the department for that long. . . .”
Picking up on his officers’ disillusionment, Williams said any officers who share Fuhrman’s attitude will be smoked out--and soon.
“We have to look in the mirror and at each other,” Williams said. “We have to look at our partners, the men and women who sit beside us in roll-call, and say, ‘Are you a part of the problem?’ If you are, you have to change or leave the organization,” he said. “There is no tolerance for the code of silence in the LAPD. There is no tolerance for racism in the LAPD.”
Times staff writers Jean Merl, John Schwada and Henry Weinstein contributed to this story.
* TAPE EXCERPTS: A14