Los Angeles Times Interview : Deirdre Hill : Heading the Police Commission During a Time of Troubles

Gayle Pollard Terry is an editorial writer for The Times

The embattled Los Angeles Police Department can't seem to escape controversy. Deirdre Hill, the chair of the Police Commission, is the calm in the eye of this political storm. Cool and unemotional, she refuses to allow today's headlines to detract from the commission's steady focus on reform and public safety.

Hill, 35, is no stranger to politics. Mayor Richard Riordan appointed her to the commission two years ago. Her mother is state Sen. Teresa Hughes (D-Inglewood). But the politics distracting the Police Department has little to do with fighting crime.

Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams, who came to the job with high accolades, is now serving under a cloud. The Police Commission, the civilian head of the LAPD, had reprimanded Williams in June for making misleading and inaccurate statements about whether he received free accommodations in Las Vegas. The chief attributed the controversy to a whisper campaign launched to undermine him. The commission's reprimand was then overturned by the City Council. Two police commissioners resigned in protest; Hill was elected the new chair in July.

The controversy revived when copies of the chief's confidential personnel records recently made front-page news. His earlier flat denials of receiving free accommodations did not square with revelations published by The Times on Sept. 15. Last week, Williams filed a $10-million claim against the city, alleging invasion of privacy.

But the state of the entire department, not just the chief's problems, is Hill's primary concern. And the LAPD is certainly troubled. About six weeks after Hill took charge, former Detective Mark Fuhrman, a lead prosecution witness in the O. J. Simpson trial, sorely embarrassed many of the men and women in blue when his racist and sexist comments were made public. Fuhrman also detailed, in tape-recorded conversations, how evidence was manufactured and people who had broken no law harassed.

If that wasn't bad enough, another detective was recently charged with soliciting a bribe and, in an unrelated case, two detectives were suspended for allegedly manufacturing evidence to implicate a murder suspect. And, one of the 44 "problem officers" identified by the Christopher Commission was involved in the fatal shooting of a Latino teen-ager in Lincoln Heights this summer.

Didn't the Christopher Commission report promise reform?

Hill is unhappy with the pace of reform like just about everyone else in Los Angeles. She's pressing the mayor and council for more resources to pursue those reforms, and to provide more competitive salaries and better working conditions for the good cops who she says dominate the LAPD.

A native of Los Angeles, Hill graduated from UC Santa Barbara and Loyola Law School. A business lawyer with a Westwood firm, she thinks long and hard before she speaks. And, what she says matters at Parker Center.

Question: Has the chief been given a fair chance in Los Angeles?

Answer: The chief came to Los Angeles at a time when there were great challenges in the department. He came at a time when we were faced with the Rodney King incident and the riots. We've had earthquakes. We've had emergency after emergency, and we continue to face ever-increasing challenges every day. The Mark Fuhrman issue is one of those.

Clearly, because he is an outsider, it has been difficult for him to be accepted within the Los Angeles Police Department.

Q: Did it help to have a black chief when the Fuhrman tapes were made public?

A: The public heard a sense of commitment from both the Police Commission and the chief to do what we can to deal with racism, and a recognition that those issues exist both inside and outside of the Police Department. As a citizen of Los Angeles, I don't know that we've heard that historically from the Police Department. I think that's progress, and I hope that the public will have more trust in the department doing what needs to be done in a critical situation.

Q: What needs to be done?

A: We need to look at the issues that arise out of the [Fuhrman] tapes. We need to look at our environments to see what the problems are, openly air them and find strategies to deal with them--not ignore the issues, as was done in the past.

Q: How have the Fuhrman tapes affected morale in the department?

A: Clearly, they have had a devastating impact on how the officers feel the public perceives them. That is difficult when you have police officers who are working in a situation where they don't have the equipment. They don't necessarily have the most competitive pay. And, they often feel they are unsupported by the management.

We're hoping that as we move forward, we'll be able to get the officers the resources and tools they need to do their jobs. They'll understand that we appreciate what they are doing for the public safety of all the citizens of Los Angeles. And, their morale will be uplifted as they see new cars coming along, as they get competitive salaries and as crime decreases in the city. I think community-based policing is the key to making police officers feel supported in all the neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

Q: Fuhrman also said derogatory things about women. How are women officers treated in this department?

A: The organization Men Against Women is one that the department has been aware of for more than a decade. There have been accusations filed time and time again about a backlash against women; women discouraged from applying for promotions; women not being talked to when they went out on a call, and generally being ostracized.

At a time when we are trying to bring on more women to make the department more reflective of the diversity of Los Angeles, we need to embrace every qualified officer candidate.

Q: Won't Fuhrman's comments discourage women and blacks from applying to this department?

A: Fuhrman is gone, and anyone who espouses those views is a dinosaur and needs to go as well. So, anyone who would be attracted to this department who is a female or a minority should feel encouraged to come to the LAPD now, because it is truly a new day.

Q: A lot of officers live outside L.A., in part because of the expense of housing. Does that alienate them from the people they are sworn to protect and serve?

A: For community relations, it would be good if those people lived in the neighborhoods and had a sense of what goes on there every day. Our police officers, on a community-based policing model, will have more interaction with community members. Officers won't simply be in their car. If we get more officers on the streets interacting with people, they'll have a good sense of what goes on there, and feel a sense of ownership in the area. If we are truly able to achieve community-based policing, [where they live] will be less of a concern.

Q: Does Los Angeles need more police officers?

A: Los Angeles has the lowest ratio of officers per capita of any big city in the nation. When you compare L.A. to other cities, like New York, it's amazing that we are able to deal with the crime situation to the extent that we are able to do so, and that crime has decreased in the last year.

We desperately need more officers, and we need more officers acting in a proactive fashion so that people feel better about the quality of their life, and not fearful of traveling the streets, particularly at night.

Q: Crime is down but fear is up--especially after the 3-year-old girl was killed in Cypress Park because the driver made a wrong turn. What can the LAPD do to reduce crimes like that, and to reduce fear?

A: Those issues travel further than the Police Department. These are social issues that we have to deal with as a city. Children are on the streets who have no alternative mechanism of leadership or guidance, no activities to engage in other than destructive, violent activities that should not be occurring in the city of Los Angeles today. We need to get all our social agencies and efforts together . . . .

Q: How much progress has the LAPD made on the Christopher Commission reforms?

A: As you may be aware, the commission has not been very happy with the pace of the reforms . . . . We've identified areas where we may need additional staff to help us with our investigative component, as well as moving forward with identifying the goals and objectives of the Christopher reform effort.

Q: What's the status of the inspector general?

A: We are presently advertising for that position. You may recall the Police Commission spent at least a couple of years requesting and trying to get authorization for that position. We had to move for a charter reform to take the measure to the people, and the people overwhelmingly supported the establishment of that position. We hope to get someone on board in short order.

Q: What other Christopher Commission reforms can you accomplish by next year?

A: It's important to look at what we have accomplished. We've had a civilian added to the Board of Rights, which disciplines police officers.

We have a computer system being brought on board to catalogue a personnel history of officers, which would include both citizen complaints and commendations for the purpose of having access when making assignments or evaluations of police officers.

These are just a few of the accomplishments. Where we need to go forward is systemic change. We need to re-evaluate our personnel system, our evaluation system. We need to look again at use of force and bring forward community-based policing as a reality.

Q: Will the council give the department the resources it needs?

A: I'm hopeful . . . . I recently talked to [Councilwoman] Laura Chick and the mayor about giving us some more funds for additional staff to work on implementation of the reforms . . . .

There are certainly competing interests. It is a difficult task for the City Council to weigh all these interests.

We think it is imperative that the council comes forward with the money for a discrimination unit within the Police Commission to deal with some of the social ills that we face.

Q: How would that work?

A: Generally, it would be staffed off-site from Parker Center, and would enable the Police Commission and department to look not only at disciplining officers who act out in a negative fashion but to embrace those officers who are being subjected to harassment or backlash because of their gender or ethnicity.

[The unit] would bring on skilled professionals, who know how to deal with environmental issues that exist, such as racism or organized discrimination.

Q: How big a problem is that in this department?

A: We get a large number of complaints from individuals contending racially disparate treatment or treatment they think is gender-based or sexually oriented based. The perception of many is that it's an unfriendly environment for them. So, we have to do all we can to support them in their efforts to work for the interests of the city, and give them the resources that we have available to do that.

Q: Are you talking beyond name-calling?

A: We have an extensive amount of sexual-harassment issues. We do have teasing and joking issues where people take license with things they think are funny and others don't perceive it that way. Generally, there are a number of different facets, within which you can get a complaint of that type. We need to be sensitive to all of them, and if the perception is there with one or two cases, we need to deal with that perception as much as we need to deal with reality.

Q: The LAPD is known for its code of silence. Officers don't rat each other out. They don't take it up the chain of command. Does this culture discourage someone who is subjected to this kind of treatment from making a complaint?

A: Many people who complain indicate they are hesitant to complain or to voice concerns, because they fear retaliation of one sort or another. We want everyone to feel this is an environment free of bias and retaliation. If we have a problem, we are going to deal with it. There are not going to be ramifications that are negative for airing your concerns.

Q: Are citizens discouraged from making complaints?

A: The LAPD has really excelled in this area more so than many other police departments. You can find citizen-complaint forms in almost every substation, every station and City Council offices in different languages. We have a process now that requires that those citizen complaints be accepted. Historically, there was an effort to discourage people from filing those complaints. We are tying to make it as easy as possible.

Q: How do you feel about the chief filing a claim for $10 million against the city of Los Angeles?

A: There are no winners in this situation. Everybody gets hurt, particularly the citizens of Los Angeles . . . . The claim is for money against the city of L.A., and that's against the taxpayers. But our attention right now has to be focused on the issues of reform and on public policy, and that's where we are focused.

Please see article by Police Chief Willie L. Williams on Page M5.

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