Trial Fallout Spreads to O.C. : Police work: Recruits and young officers fear that suspicions and animosity raised by the Fuhrman tapes will make their jobs even harder.


Just imagining the confrontation sends a chill through Tina Kilcullen. She is only four months into the police academy, but her mind has played out the scenario a dozen times.

The showdown is not in some dark alley, it is in her own station house. The foe is not a cold-eyed gangbanger or some kidnaper waving a gun, it is instead a compatriot. For Tina Kilcullen, the face of her fears is Mark Fuhrman.

"The thing I worry most about is getting in a department and encountering a guy like Fuhrman and then, as a rookie, going to a supervisor to complain about some 15-year guy," Kilcullen said. "There's a good chance I will encounter someone like that. Will anyone listen to me? I don't know. But I'd do it. Absolutely. No matter what happened."

For Kilcullen, 24, and many other police academy recruits, the vilification of former Los Angeles Detective Mark Fuhrman has left them confused, angry or searching for lessons amid the disgrace.

Taped interviews of Fuhrman describing racist thuggery and evidence-planting blared across the nation during O.J. Simpson's trial, and the words still echo through Orange County's three police academies, where a new generation of cops ponder their future on the streets.

"We are damaged as a law enforcement community," Kilcullen said during a break in her police academy classes at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, where she is working toward her goal of joining the Garden Grove department next year. "It makes our job even tougher. We're going to have to earn the respect of the community all over again. But I think we can."

The difficulty in that challenge may be overcoming the criticism and intense scrutiny that awaits young cops on the streets. Countywide, officers say they are encountering more insults and suspicion from the public, and videotaping officers in the field has become a mini-fad of sorts. "Police operate in a fishbowl," Garden Grove Police Chief Stanley L. Knee said. "And in my 26 years of service, the glass has never been clearer."

Cameron Knauerhaze, 20, can attest to that. He is only three months into the 11-month program at Golden West Police Academy, but his four years on patrol as a police cadet in Laguna Beach have given him a taste of the career and a glimpse of the public's harsher view of the uniform.

"It seems like people have lost respect for law enforcement," Knauerhaze said. "I understand why. When I heard about Fuhrman it even hurt me. It was like, 'This is what I'm stepping into?' I know people look at me and there's always that question: Is he a Fuhrman? Is he a racist? That's going to take a while to go away."

Fuhrman has not been the only black eye for law enforcement. It has been more than four years since motorist Rodney G. King was pulled from his car and beaten by a circle of Los Angeles cops, but the reverberations of that videotaped incident are still felt.

More recently, residents in major cities across the nation have been forced to eye their protectors more warily. In Philadelphia, six rogue officers pleaded guilty to corruption, and now hundreds of convictions in their cases might be overturned. In New Orleans, two officers face possible death penalties in unrelated homicide cases, while in New York dozens of police officers have been charged since 1994 in drug, extortion and assault cases.

Los Alamitos Police Capt. Mike Sellers said that although those high-profile cases have battered the public perception of law enforcement, it's difficult to gauge their effect on the mind-set of new police officers and recruits.

"They've been shocked by it," Sellers said. "Some, I'm sure, are confused by it. But I think a lot of it could make them stronger, better cops."

For 19 years, Sellers has taught recruits at Southern California police academies and watched as the region's growth, the economy, shrinking government budgets and the downsizing of the military have affected the size and quality of the candidate pool for entry-level police jobs.

There are few new jobs now, especially in the wake of the Orange County bankruptcy, but Sellers said he thinks the caliber of the police recruits is higher than ever. And, he said, one thing remains unchanged: the motives of the would-be cops.

"They are dedicated to serve," said Sellers, who estimates he has taught about 4,000 recruits. "That is what drives them. I thought it was a great job when I came into it, and I still think it's a great job. The key is [to] adapt to change."

Entry-level officers can expect to make $36,000 to $42,000 at Orange County agencies, according to Don Blankenship, president of the Santa Ana Police Officers Assn. Is the job worth it? "In days past I would have said yes, but there's been a total breakdown of respect for cops," Blankenship said.

That breakdown of respect was in motion long before Fuhrman gave critics of police a larger-than-life target. As personnel officer for the Huntington Beach police, Mike Metoyer has seen a steady exodus of officers in recent years, many of them upset about the abuse they receive. He said academy recruits should brace themselves for similar experiences.

"I've been called anything and everything," Metoyer said, adding that his racially mixed heritage has spared him from the most recent insult, being dubbed a "Fuhrman."

"I don't have to worry about that at least," he said. "That would be a new low, to be called a Fuhrman. That would be the worst."

The accounts of the street scene have reached recruits in the academies. They know what's waiting for them, according to Brad Thurman, a 25-year-old Carlsbad native who is training to become an Anaheim officer.

"It's a tough time to get into law enforcement right now, I guess that's no secret," said Thurman, still sweating from early morning exercises with his class. "It's a challenge for me as a recruit and for the instructors here to prepare us for what's out there and to make sure we become good cops."

Sitting in a classroom at the Sheriff's Training Academy, Thurman tried to imagine what his first day in the squad car would be like, his first traffic stop, his first arrest. Through the cinder-block walls of the academy, he could hear the deep-throated marching cadence of his fellow recruits, some of whom he might someday trust with his life.

"It's slowly becoming a reality," Thurman said. "As we're getting more into studying patrol techniques, it's sinking in that we'll be out there in a few months. It's an eye-opener. It's scary in a way, but I look forward to it too."

How does Thurman define a good cop? "Honesty and integrity," he said without hesitation. "You make a mistake, you own up to it."

Thurman and other recruits repeatedly cited the philosophy of community policing as the way they could best mend the battered reputation of law enforcement. The practice, which uses patrol officers to build partnerships and lines of communication with the community, has captured the imagination of many recruits and young officers.

Community policing in many ways recalls the era of the beat cop, the officer who was a familiar face and influence in a neighborhood. As urban areas grew and crime worsened through the years, law enforcement became more call-oriented, with officers dealing with the public primarily when they were responding to trouble.

Hugh Foster, director of the Golden West Police Academy, said the idea of a cop who makes a difference in a neighborhood before crime is committed is especially appealing to the newest generation of officers.

"They're excited by the potential of community policing," said Foster, a former Huntington Beach officer. "The shininess of the badge today may be tarnished, but every minute this new group is out there providing services, they'll be shining that badge."

But as inspiring as the community policing ideal may be for the recruits, many wondered how they would be able to forge alliances in communities if the public greets them with hostile scrutiny and abuse. Others said such pressure is simply part of the job.

Newport Beach police dispatcher Mike Lektorich, 43, hopes to join the force as a sworn officer next year, and he knows that every move he makes on the streets will be watched and second-guessed.

"We're under the microscope, but that's OK with me," said Lektorich, who worked as an air traffic controller during his 20-year stint in the Air Force. "I see a police officer as a pillar within society. People look to us and say, 'Hold us together.' So we have to be held to a slightly higher standard."

Santa Ana psychologist Larry Blum said heated exchanges or mumbled slights from citizens can rattle the idealist views of young officers and leave them frustrated and hurt. Along with that first grisly accident scene or encounter with a youthful victim, the abuse provides an unkind lesson in the harsh realities of cop life.

"In their mind, they're supposed to be the good guy," said Blum, who counsels officers with more than 15 Southern California agencies. "They're going to save everybody and do the right thing and get a pat on the back. And then they get out there. Often they're not prepared for the psychological changes they are going to be going through."

Still, Blum said, new police officers have the resiliency of youth on their side. That helps them overcome the negativity aimed at their profession.

"It is the experienced officers who feel acute pain when they hear these things," Blum said of some of his recent patients. "They are more likely to be wounded by the perception. The new ones are idealistic and hopeful, they see themselves as part of the solution."

For Cameron Phillips, solving problems has been a way of life. Phillips, 29, said he has "always felt like a policeman," even when he was the Fountain Valley kid who always made sure the schoolyard pickup games were played by the rules. He always wanted to be a cop, but he postponed his pursuit of the career to spend a few years starting a family and gaining "life experience," he said.

Phillips said he is unshaken by the venom directed at police, but he hopes that he can carry some valuable insights from the assorted scandals when he achieves his goal and dons the uniform of the Costa Mesa police next year.

"We must find something to learn from these incidents," Phillips said. "But they are still isolated incidents. There have been some scandals recently in the medical fields, for instance, but I don't think that reflects on all physicians. It's the same for cops."

One thing he has learned, he said, is that a society cannot view racist and corrupt officers as solely a police issue. The lesson in Fuhrman's fall during the O.J. Simpson trial and other scandals is one that must be learned by everyone.

"Yes, being a cop is different than it used to be, and maybe harder," Phillips said. "But not more so than being an American is different, or being a Californian is different. The issues we think about today--women's rights, ethics, racism, the environment--show we are evolving as a people. We are learning."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World