THE SIMPSON LEGACY : Just Under the Skin : Pushed by Change, Pulled by the Past : As the LAPD Pursues Community-Friendly Policing, a Paramilitary Tradition Dies Hard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the hills that buffer the grounds of the Los Angeles Police Academy, the staccato of training range gunfire echoes as it always has, an enduring constant in an institution facing seismic change.

The academy is ground zero in the Police Department's ambitious plans to alter its own culture, the place where psychologists and reform-minded officers are trying to mass-produce a new police generation no longer reared on the paramilitary models of the past.

Recruits are no longer expected to run, double-time, between classes. Drill formations once dominated by young white men are now speckled with black, Latino, Asian and female faces.

Volatile issues of race and policing--the explosive mixture that has haunted the LAPD from the Rodney G. King beating to the role that former Detective Mark Fuhrman's racial attitudes played in the jurors' acquittal of O.J. Simpson--are being met head-on at the academy, rubbed raw in encounter groups and circumscribed in newly revised policy statements.

But even as the LAPD broadens its training and revamps its internal systems, it faces a quandary that American police departments have yet to master: How to recast a police culture long resistant to change--and how to jettison a deeply embedded subculture of white officers whose racial beliefs led the Christopher Commission to conclude in 1991 that the department had a "troubling problem" with internal bias, a problem mirrored in Fuhrman's unhampered career.

From the LAPD's training fields to its station houses, the effort to mold a new breed of police officer confronts the department's own living past--thousands of cops who learned their aggressive style of policing under chiefs William H. Parker and Daryl F. Gates and must now conform to the community-conscious methods of Chief Willie L. Williams.

In the academy and out on the streets, recruits are still being taught the realities of police work and the verities of police culture by officers steeped in the department's dated take-no-prisoners philosophy. Even in a reform era, veterans insist that their old proactive style--in which arrests were prized above all else to compensate for the department's low staffing levels--is still the essence of policing communities torn by gang warfare and narcotics strife.

"In my heart, I know the old hard-nosed, proactive way is the right way," said Sgt. Nick Titiriga, 39, an instructor at the academy and one of the LAPD's few heroes of the 1992 riots. "But that's not our way anymore."

In Los Angeles' minority communities, where proactive policing has always been viewed through racial filters, residents are not so certain that the old ways are gone. In South-Central, people have heard plenty of assurances about a new spirit of cooperation. Some of them show up at community police meetings and department-sponsored picnics at housing projects. But on their front porches and in their living rooms, people still complain wearily about the familiar routines of traffic stops, prone-outs and racially tinged code words.

"There may be small changes, but the tension's still here," said Michael Wiggins, 34, a dry-cleaning worker who lives in Rolling 60s gang territory and has had his share of tense encounters with LAPD officers.

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That hard-eyed view of police reform has been lent credence by a recent wave of violent and racially tinged police misconduct in Philadelphia, New York, Houston and other cities where police departments had institutionalized reform long before Los Angeles began its own changes. In Philadelphia, where Williams oversaw reform efforts before taking over the LAPD in 1992, a cell of white officers has been convicted of trumping up charges against scores of black residents, forcing a re-examination of thousands of old court cases. Some of those now-overturned cases happened on Williams' watch.

These cities had already applied the remedies that the LAPD is now using--hiring more minority officers, toughening regulations on police shootings and brutality, teaching sensitivity to minority concerns, muting old aggressive enforcement techniques with programs such as community policing.

"The problem with reform is that police departments enact some policies and assume everyone falls into line," said Councilman Michael Nutter, who represents the poor North Philadelphia neighborhood where six officers from the Police Department's 39th District routinely beat and planted evidence on career criminals and law-abiding residents. "But once the spotlight is off, the good old boys are out there playing the same old racist, violent games."

In Los Angeles, the enduring presence of the old guard does not necessarily doom the effort to transform the LAPD's culture, say public officials pushing for change. But they acknowledge that although the department's systems and rules can be quickly overhauled, getting to the hearts and minds of its veterans--and the rookies who learn from them--will take much longer, requiring the public's patience.

"Police reform can't be viewed as something with a finite beginning and end," said Los Angeles Police Commission Vice President Art Mattox. "The reform process will go on until the end of time."

From his desk in a hillside trailer at the academy, Titiriga is trying to come to terms with the LAPD's new world. At times, when he talks about the changes taking place around him, his voice tightens in fury. What reformers reject in the old department, they reject in him. For Titiriga, for cops who went with the old program, the changes come as a personal rebuke, a rejection of all those years spent "hooking and booking" suspects in gang territory.

"We used to be family, we had respect and support for each other," said Titiriga, a ruddy-faced, tobacco-chewing former Marine who embodies the athletic warrior class that the department once cultivated like prize stallions.

They were the department's honored caste, military men who thrived on discipline. They were weightlifters, target shooters, avid watchers of "Dragnet" and "Adam 12" who could recall old lines and plots the way drama scholars cite Shakespeare. Once they jokingly called themselves "cowboys" and "gunslingers." Now they use the terms, almost sadly, in past tense.

Three years ago, on the eve of the city's riots, Titiriga, an 18-year veteran, led a squad of anti-gang CRASH officers in the 77th Street Division in south Los Angeles. He and the 20 cops on his team would race into the barren yards where gang members loitered, taking their photographs for internal files, talking trash with them, arresting them when they found drugs and illegal guns.

Titiriga traces the beginning of the end of his career as a street cop to the April night that South-Central burned. When the intersection of Florence and Normandie convulsed in looting and beatings, he and his partner, Sgt. J.J. May, headed for the intersection in a lone black-and-white. Bricks, whiskey bottles and gunshots drove them back.

Instead of receiving commendations, Titiriga found himself answering brutality and discourtesy complaints during the next three years. Unlike many veterans who pulled back after the King verdicts and ignored suspects they once had stopped for questioning, Titiriga remained aggressive. And he paid for it, accused once of excessive force and five times of verbal discourtesy by the gang members he dogged.

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None of the complaints against him was sustained. Some were classified as "unfounded," while others were labeled "unresolved" by hearing officers--meaning it was Titiriga's word against the gang members'.

Despite the fact that he received no disciplinary actions, Titiriga had compiled a total of 18 misconduct complaints--both unfounded and unresolved--and they trailed him like noisy ghosts. So he decided to get off the streets, ultimately transferring to the academy.

The teaching job has grown on him. But Titiriga wonders about the men and women who have taken his place on patrol, how they will adapt to the changes asked of them. "The criminal element," he said, "is using the issue of race to block out the reality that people are out there committing crimes, selling dope."

That attitude was once echoed in the highest echelons of the LAPD. Racial complaints from residents and the LAPD's own minority officers were minimized, chalked off as the carping of criminals and the activists who coddled them.

Many upper-level commanders have, if not fostered, encouraged that culture. Racial jokes were a staple of command humor and some top officers "categorized people derogatorily and racially," said David Dotson, a former assistant chief in the Gates era. There was no official countenancing of bias, Dotson said, but the tone wafted its way down into the ranks. "Racist police officers were tolerated by commanders as long asthey were perceived as good cops."

The LAPD's current command staff insists that it does not tolerate the internal racial attitudes that the Christopher Commission once identified as "conducive to discriminatory treatment and officer misconduct."

"It's unrealistic to think we can remove all their bias," said Capt. Gary Brennan, who heads the academy. "But we can educate them so they can understand differences between cultures and reinforce an organizational environment that has a bias-free attitude."

LAPD officials say they are transforming the department's acculturation process, starting with applicants' earliest contacts with the force. And last month, the department launched a program aimed at giving veteran officers an eight-hour course in racial and gender sensitivity--and another to retrain the LAPD's veteran training officers to ensure that rookies do not learn the bad habits of the older cops.

The department's first line of defense is the psychological testing, interviews and background checks used to scrutinize applicants. About 10% of LAPD applicants are turned away because of their "lack of respect for others"--a code phrase for people with "racial and gender attitude" problems, said Philip Henning, assistant general manager of administration for the city's Personnel Department.

Yet nothing in the upbeat, multiethnic literature that applicants receive warns those with racial biases that they are not wanted. The lack of a clear message, said one former Los Angeles Police Commission member, is "ludicrous. We need to give racists the clearest possible message to stay away."

Background investigators try to weed out biased applicants during interviews, but lies and subterfuge are an inevitable weakness in the process. And psychological tests appear to have little value alone in assessing racial attitudes.

Steven Stanard, whose Chicago testing firm Stanard & Associates handles psychological exams for 1,000 police departments nationwide, cautions that despite their overall value in assessing character, they contain "no scale for racism. It is a diffuse kind of trait."

Candidates whose racial attitudes do not preoccupy them, who are able to keep them hidden, may well slip through. "There's no system we could devise that can catch everyone," said Cmdr. Keith D. Bushey, who heads the LAPD's personnel group.

At the academy, where recruits were once forced to run through sprinklers in jackets and ties to instill obedience, race is now a dominant concern. Recruits' attitudes are monitored by instructors and psychologists and tested by repeated exposure to role-playing scenarios and encounter groups. They are told to play-act like gang members. They are prodded to deconstruct their personalities. They are asked: "What did you learn today?"

"I think I came away from it more mindful of others, treating people with respect," said Jamie Bennett, 21, a white plumber's son from Huntington Beach who graduated from the academy last August into a patrol assignment in the Newton Division, south of Downtown.

Though there is little empirical evidence showing that cultural awareness and human relations instruction stays with recruits, sensitivity courses have become an integral part of the syllabus at police academies nationwide, as they have in business and government. And in a city riven by riots and racial tensions, such classes are essential for officers about to move out into the streets, say the psychologists and instructors who devised the LAPD's new training.

"How can you measure what recruits truly think as they go through the process?" said Sgt. Sandy Jo MacArthur, an instructor. "We tell them, get your biases out, look at them and get on with your life."

Even those in the upper echelons who talk about reform with the same gung-ho spirit they once reserved for proactive policing have sometimes shown as much resistance as the rank and file in warming to the new concepts. When former Police Commission President Gary Greenebaum urged that department commanders attend a role-playing presentation by the Washington-based National Coalition Building Institute, there were few takers, said one police reformer. Even when a second attempt at a session finally drew most of the department's upper-level officers, Chief Williams was a notable no-show.

The hiring of Williams as the department's first black chief was meant to send a strong signal that a new era had arrived, one in which a true alliance would be struck between the LAPD and the communities it serves. But the truth is that achieving lasting reform is a far more complicated task--as illustrated by Williams' tenure in Philadelphia.

There, in hindsight, his record has lost some of its luster, marred by evidence that his reforms failed to weed out abusive veterans.

Trying to show firmness in dealing with officers accused of excessive force and other complaints, Williams fired eight Philadelphia cops between May, 1991, and April, 1992, when he was hired as LAPD chief. But all eight of those officers are back on the force, rehired after arbitration judges found that the Philadelphia department violated their rights.

"He may have had good reason to fire them," said Ken Rocks, an official with the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police, which represented the fired officers. "But he ignored procedure. After all the media lights went out and Willie left town, they all got their jobs back--at a cost of $2 million to the city."

The recently uncovered scandal involving detectives from Philadelphia's 39th District also tarred the discipline system, which Williams had overhauled in an attempt to end years of community complaints about corruption and abuse. An ongoing federal investigation has found that several 39th District detectives managed to evade punishment by skillfully playing two Internal Affairs units against each other.

James Fyfe, a Temple University criminal law professor, found that Philadelphia's Internal Affairs unit had investigated 575 allegations of police abuse, yet filed disciplinary action in only two cases from 1986 through 1991--a period that included most of Williams' term as Philadelphia's chief.

"You can't fault Williams for trying," said Fyfe, a former New York beat cop. "The problem is that he inherited a department where reforms were either poorly administered or hadn't penetrated far enough. It's a lesson Los Angeles should take seriously."

Williams, who declined to discuss his tenure in Philadelphia, has more than doubled the LAPD's Internal Affairs force to 120 detectives. The expansion has allowed the unit to investigate more public complaints about the conduct of LAPD officers, said Cmdr. Eric Lillo, who headed Internal Affairs from 1991 until six months ago.

LAPD's Internal Affairs has always probed brutality cases, but now the unit is taking on most charges of discourtesy and racial epithets--cases that once were exclusively handled by station house sergeants, which sometimes gave rise to charges of cover-ups. Complaints of police discourtesy, which include allegations of racial epithets, rose from 46 in 1992 to 139 last year. But they plummeted this year to only 46 discourtesy complaints as of August.

"That signals a whole bunch of things, we think," Lillo said. "A return of confidence in the Police Department on the part of the public, a payoff on the implementation of some of the Christopher Commission recommendations and, we hope, new attitudes and caution among the troops."

But as the LAPD's command staff knows well, new scandals spark old skepticism. In 1991, the "gorillas in the mist" revelations that officers were using squad car computers to send racist messages became evidence for those who had long accused the LAPD of institutional racism. Now, the Mark Fuhrman tapes have set off a new round of accusations.

"Fuhrman was just honest enough to say what a lot of white officers think," said Sgt. Ron Cato, a field officer at the Southwest station and vice president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, the LAPD's organization of black officers. "What nobody wants to admit is that the old regime created Fuhrman and the new regime isn't weeding out the cops like him."

Even as the department reinvents itself--bringing residents into community councils, hosting weightlifting contests at the Imperial Courts housing projects, shepherding citizens on ride-alongs in patrol cars--its officers have yet to convince many of the city's poorest residents that the LAPD's internal culture has changed.

"You see [police] every day, stopping these kids, putting them up against the wall, talking tough with them, and for what?" said Shirley Malava, who has lived 21 years in a house near 60th Street in South-Central. "Maybe if it kept the streets free of crime, it'd be worth it. But it hasn't. All that attitude does is make people hard and mean and resentful."

Robert Ruiz, 37, is an ex-gang member with a teardrop tattoo who is now assistant pastor at Victory Outreach church near Manchester Boulevard. He has attended the department's community meetings and praises the department for "trying hard to reach out."

But Ruiz has noticed that many of those who show up at the meetings with police "are the people who have always gone--old folks, businessmen, people who have a stake in being there. They need to get the poor folks involved, the street people. Those are the folks whose minds they need to change."

That is Sgt. Ted Maillet's new job. From the driver's seat of his black-and-white, Maillet insists that the old days and the old ways are finished--even if the city's poorest residents often fail to notice.

A veteran of South-Central policing who worked 17 years on the street, a self-described "former cowboy," Maillet now greets the public as a community relations officer. It is a job he once would have scorned. But in an odd way, Maillet's acceptance of the department's lines of authority--a trait the old LAPD burned into him--helped him realize that the department's culture--his culture--was changing.

"I still believe in going out and aggressively chasing down crooks," Maillet said. "You can't just erase your inner feelings, the stuff you're made of. But when your bosses say we're changing the way we do things, then you change. Like it or not."

Times researchers John Beckham in Chicago, Liane Hart in Houston and Anna Virtue in Miami contributed to this story.

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