Co-Workers Paint Different Portrait of Mark Fuhrman : LAPD: In contrast to racist boasts on tapes, black, Latino colleagues describe a hard-working, unbiased cop.
So we all know the name Mark Fuhrman and we all know that it has become synonymous with the worst of law enforcement. A cop whose own words branded him a racist and led some to believe he framed O.J. Simpson. A cop whose own chief called him a disgrace.
That is what we know, what we have seen and heard and read.
But what about the patrol officers and desk sergeants and detectives who worked with Fuhrman? Some have known him for years, have worked with him during the periods when we have been told he was out of control. What are we to make of the fact they considered him--in fact, many still consider him--a good officer, a good detective, someone who was a credit to the badge, at least when they knew him?
“The person that the world knows . . . on the tape . . . is racist, who made terrible remarks, who probably represents all the filth the world has to offer. The Mark Fuhrman I know . . . is not that. He is not a racist,” said Sgt. Roberto Alaniz, a Latino whom Fuhrman sought out as a partner in 1984.
Sgt. Ed Palmer, an African American who first met Fuhrman at the West Los Angeles station last year, said: “I am as shocked as anybody. . . . If Mark were a racist and especially as big a racist as he sounded on the tapes, I would have no trouble telling him he was the scum of the earth. But I really can’t.”
And this from Carlton Brown, a black homicide detective who was Fuhrman’s partner for most of 1993: “I really can’t say whether Fuhrman was racist or not, but if he harbored those feelings, it was not evident to me. I don’t know, maybe I’m naive. But I don’t think so.”
Recent interviews with more than half a dozen LAPD officers, all but one of them black or Latino, do not prove that the now-infamous former detective did not commit the brutalities he bragged about on a series of taped interviews between 1985 and 1994. Nor do they prove he did not mask racist views while sharing a patrol car, meals, even an apartment, with the officers who worked with him, trained him and even partnered with him.
But the portrait that emerges from these interviews is clearly one at odds with the Mark Fuhrman whose conduct and comments have sparked investigations of the Los Angeles Police Department--including a new probe by the U.S. Justice Department. Instead of the rogue, racist cop whose very presence in the O.J. Simpson case has again put the LAPD on trial, interviews suggest that Fuhrman was aggressive, even arrogant, but if he harbored the vile views expressed to others, he concealed them from many with whom he worked.
Not unlike Clint Eastwood’s fictional San Francisco film detective Harry Callahan, several LAPD officers said, Fuhrman could be sullen and purposely shocking. But that was just his personality, they added, and it never overruled his logic when it came to arrests.
True, the portrait offered by officers in recent interviews is largely anecdotal. And even the officers who are willing to give Fuhrman the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his statements are not lining up a legal defense fund for him.
Maybe, some say, he never shared his true feelings with them.
Or maybe, they suggest, he changed after he underwent psychological counseling in the mid-1980s.
But their view of Fuhrman, the officers insisted, was not based on naivete. “I was born and raised on the streets of East L.A.,” said Officer Robert Bermudez, who had just joined the LAPD in 1987 when he worked with Fuhrman. “I was new to the job but not to the world.”
Palmer said: “Being African American, when you come into contact with someone, you listen to them and pick up on things. There have been times I have worked with people [and] you wonder about them. I never wondered with him. I knew he was aggressive. I knew he was a little arrogant. But I never got racism at all.”
Nor, the officers said, do their comments reflect any tacit acceptance of the LAPD meting out street justice. “If he were that way, and as much a racist as the tapes indicated, then it would have come out somewhere and somebody would have spoken up,” Palmer said. “That code of silence nonsense, you get to that point, somebody would have spoken up.”
Especially, the minority officers said, if Fuhrman’s wrath was directed at one of their own. “We are trained as police officers to uphold law and order,” Brown said. “I also have an obligation to my race as an individual [and] . . . I would not have stood by for anyone crossing over the line of any race.”
Alaniz added: “If he did something wrong and you [ignored it], what are the consequences? You can be indicted. You will be fired. You can lose your job, your home, everything. It’s just not worth it.”
Of course, there are plenty inside and outside the department who will tell you that the recollections of Fuhrman’s former partners say less about him than they do about the willingness of any officers to publicly criticize one of their own.
“I think it is a fallacy to say that just because someone didn’t say something around you, that you are not able to discern the person [Fuhrman] has a problem with race,” said Detective Leonard A. Ross, president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, an association of black LAPD officers.
“You mean in 20 years, he never said any of those things to anybody else? Impossible,” Ross said.
In Ross’ view, it is not surprising that none of the officers interviewed could recall an instance where Fuhrman used racial epithets or excessive force. To the contrary, he said, it would have made no sense for the former detective to do so in front of officers who did not share his views. “It’s no secret, you just pick and choose when you do it,” Ross said of misconduct. “[Fuhrman] was not a fool, nobody said he was a fool.”
In fact, Ross said, from the moment Fuhrman’s career became a focus of the trial, many officers approached him with stories about the former detective crossing the line with minorities. “[They] said . . . that he did things he talked about,” Ross said.
But those officers, Ross said, did not want to join in the criticism of Fuhrman. “They don’t want to come out and be ostracized for breaking the code of silence,” Ross said.
“You gotta remember, there is still a code of silence,” said Sgt. Al Ruvalcaba, who is president of the Latin American Law Assn. “There is no doubt about that.”
But if officers with something critical to say about Fuhrman are unwilling to come forward, those who agreed to interviews--and who insist they are not apologists--offer a different depiction of the former detective.
“I never saw him be discourteous to any person and certainly not because of their race,” said Sgt. Paul Partridge, who has known Fuhrman since the two were LAPD rookies at the 77th Street station 20 years ago. “If he were back on the job [today] he would risk his life for anyone on the job or anyone in this city, just like he always had. And he wouldn’t care who they were.”
Although the times were different, and what may have been acceptable behavior or language then is now measured against society’s evolving sensibilities, Partridge said that Fuhrman still would have been discouraged from reckless, improper conduct by one simple fact:
He was a rookie.
“When I [first] knew him, we were both very young police officers. He was young. He was a recruit,” said Partridge, who shared a Seal Beach apartment with Fuhrman for several months in 1976 after Fuhrman’s first divorce.
Although the two men remained friends, Partridge said, they drifted apart a bit after Partridge was assigned to the Hollenbeck station and then got married in 1977. Still, he said, they remained close enough for Partridge to know many details about Fuhrman’s personality and personal life.
For one thing, Partridge recalled, Fuhrman had one long-term girlfriend who was a Latina--a fact some might find curious for a man many see as an uncontrollable racist. Partridge said Fuhrman and the woman, who was not an officer, dated about two years. And, he recalled, the woman was not one to tolerate any racial slights. “She was very vocal, very proud of her heritage,” Partridge said. “And [Fuhrman] had no problem with that.”
Although he never saw Fuhrman exhibit racist actions or language, Partridge said, he does remember the former detective as so self-assured that his confidence often spilled over into cockiness. And when that occurred, Partridge said, Fuhrman’s arrogance could be offensive.
“I have seen him make statements that are shocking, mostly in social situations. He would make a statement and then kick back with a smug look on his face, just to stir things up more than anything else,” Partridge said. “But I have never heard him direct a comment . . . to anyone with a discourteous intent.”
That representation, shared by several other officers, collides, of course, with the Fuhrman portrayed during the Simpson trial.
The Fuhrman who, witness Kathleen Bell testified, told her during their first meeting that African Americans should be “gathered together and burned.”
The Fuhrman who can be heard on taped conversations with an aspiring screenwriter, saying, “We got females . . . and dumb niggers [in the department], and all your Mexicans that can’t even write the name of the car they drive.”
In the lexicon of police work, in that world where men and women can risk their lives each day confronting the worst society has to offer, there is--and always has been--a distinction made between what is said in the moment and how someone really feels, several officers said.
Years ago, they admit, tongues were looser. Racial remarks were more common. And officers of all races, they said, would use the derogatory epithet for African Americans.
“It was racist, no doubt about it,” Partridge said. “None of us use that particular term anymore. We don’t condone it at all.”
After hearing the testimony in the Simpson trial and the taped interviews in which Fuhrman uttered one racial epithet after another, Partridge said, he was angered that someone he knew would say such things. But he was still convinced, he said, that in Fuhrman’s mind the remarks were directed at criminals, not an entire race.
“I am not trying to minimize the seriousness of racist activity. And to the extent he was involved in it, the things he said, he is on his own. I will not defend him,” Partridge said.
But Fuhrman’s intent, Partridge thinks, was not “to brand an entire race of people as much as it was to comment about certain people.”
Alaniz, who has known Fuhrman since 1984, agreed.
The two met, Alaniz said, shortly after Fuhrman returned to duty when he was denied a stress disability pension despite telling superiors he could no longer deal with minorities. (In 1982, Fuhrman requested an early retirement, graphically describing how he tortured suspects and conned Internal Affairs detectives. “I answer everything with violence,” Fuhrman said at the time. “Just seems like I can’t tolerate anybody or anything anymore.”)
After returning to duty, Fuhrman was first sent to do desk work and was later assigned to the West Los Angeles station. There, Alaniz said, Fuhrman spoke openly about his request for a stress pension.
“I asked him [his feelings about minorities] after he told me about his stress thing,” Alaniz said. “He said he never had problems with blacks, that he only had problems with the criminal element. He told me what he said [to the pension board] . . . that having worked his assignments, he couldn’t stand the criminal element, that he couldn’t stand gang members. He hated them. [He said] that it got to the point where he would probably shoot them rather than give them the benefit of the doubt” in a standoff.
Several months after Fuhrman was back on duty, Alaniz said, he asked Alaniz to be his partner--a move Alaniz and some others say flies in the face of Fuhrman’s reputation as an officer who disdained minorities. “I just don’t understand how a person that is very racist would choose to . . . work with a minority officer in a two-man car,” Alaniz said.
Before they became patrol partners, Alaniz said, LAPD superiors decided that Fuhrman’s true feelings about race should be put to the test by making Fuhrman’s first partner--after his pension hearing--a black female officer. Fuhrman was paired for two months with Officer Toish Ellerson.
Alaniz said Fuhrman told him he enjoyed working with Ellerson. And he recalls Fuhrman saying, “They have this idea that I can’t stand working with a black person and a woman. But they are wrong. She is a very pleasant person to work with.”
For her part, Ellerson, now a sergeant in the West Los Angeles station’s community relations office, also had no unpleasant recollections of her time as Fuhrman’s partner.
“To be blunt, I never had any problems with him,” she said.
With the caveat that the two did not work together long enough to really know each other, Ellerson said she could not recall any improper conduct or comments by Fuhrman on the streets or in the station.
“He never showed any disrespect to me or any member of the public,” Ellerson said. “If he had, someone would have heard about it.”
It was during his time at West Los Angeles, several officers said, that Fuhrman tried to salvage his career and reputation as a solid officer. And that is how some remember him.
“He was a rough and tough cop,” said Officer Adrian Ferns, an African American who had limited dealings with Fuhrman but said his experience with the former detective did not mesh with the one on the tapes. “That individual,” Ferns said, “was not the same individual I worked with.”
During his time in West Los Angeles, Alaniz said, Fuhrman exhibited some of the cockiness usually reserved for celluloid cops. On one occasion, Alaniz said, Fuhrman even seemed to borrow a scene from a “Dirty Harry” movie.
“In the mid-’80s . . . there was sniping in our private parking lot and he just walked out of the station,” Alaniz said. As other officers took cover from the sniper, Alaniz said, someone yelled to Fuhrman, “Get down, somebody is shooting.”
But Fuhrman, Alaniz said, just kept walking to his car with an attitude of no concern. “He said, ‘Hey, I got a gun. If there is someone out there who tries to shoot me, I will shoot him back,’ ” Alaniz recalled.
Notwithstanding that incident, Alaniz said, Fuhrman was known as a solid cop. “His uniform was impeccable. He kept himself in shape. Shoes shiny. His tactics were good. He didn’t do anything reckless.”
And, Alaniz said, Fuhrman always had that steely demeanor. “If you dealt with him in the streets, everything was fine. But if you wanted a fight, it didn’t take long for him to take you down. He wasn’t into a lot of fighting. He wouldn’t fight someone like five rounds . . . his demeanor was almost like some of Clint Eastwood’s [in his movies]. No expression. No nonsense.”
Alaniz added: “It would be hard to read him sometimes. So even if he didn’t like you, he wouldn’t show it. . . . There was no way for the public to know whether he liked them or not.
“When I heard him on the stand, his reference that he never used that [N-word] to anyone’s face . . . that would be totally uncharacteristic for him to do that,” Alaniz said.
During their time as partners, Alaniz added, he only once saw Fuhrman lose his temper--during the arrest of a longhaired transient who Fuhrman, a former Marine, learned had avoided the Vietnam War by fleeing to Canada.
“[The transient] looked like he came right out of the ‘60s--blue jeans, bell-bottom pants, tie-dye T-shirt, long hair, peace sign on the belt buckle, leather vest, even a mushroom in his pocket,” Alaniz said.
Amused at the man’s appearance, Alaniz said, Fuhrman asked the transient, “Where have you been . . . the last 20 years?”
Fuhrman, who had served in Vietnam, “went off” when he learned that the man had evaded military service by going to Canada, Alaniz said.
“[Fuhrman] said, ‘You know what I was doing when you were in Canada?’ . . . He just gave him a piece of his mind.”
Alaniz added: “It was the only time I ever saw him really loud with somebody. He got pretty hostile.”
The tape recordings, of course, suggest that there were other instances where Fuhrman crossed the line. And that possibility remains an enigma to officers who worked with him.
“I was shocked,” said Marygrace Rivera, an eight-year veteran of the LAPD who now works as a training officer at the Southwest station. “I was never his partner, but in the station you deal with other officers . . . [and] the dealings I had with him were very positive.”
As a probationary officer, Rivera said, she knew Fuhrman throughout 1988--less than a year after Natalie Singer, a witness in the Simpson trial, testified that she heard Fuhrman spew racial epithets. But in their dealings, Rivera said, Fuhrman never showed an inkling of racial animus. “I never heard him say anything negative. Not at all,” Rivera said. “If he is that bad and he didn’t care, then he wouldn’t have cared what he said in front of me.”
As a woman in a male-dominated profession and someone who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, Rivera said, she is not only attuned to sexism and racism but prepared to challenge them. “If I had heard him or anyone else say something I didn’t like, I would confront them,” she said.
But, she said, that never happened with Fuhrman.
“Maybe he did change,” she said. “But in my heart, I can’t believe he changed. I just can’t.”
Similarly, Officer Robert Bermudez, who also worked with Fuhrman in 1988, said he has a hard time reconciling the Fuhrman known to the world with the one he shared a foot beat with in Westwood.
“I was shocked. I just didn’t believe it,” Bermudez said about Fuhrman’s tape-recorded comments and remarks in connection with his pension case.
Two years ago, Fuhrman had another minority officer as a partner--Detective Carlton Brown, who now is assigned to the South Bureau’s homicide unit. And he also recalled Fuhrman as a good officer and investigator when Brown moved to the detective bureau in West Los Angeles.
Assigned as partners from February to October, 1993, Fuhrman and Brown got along fine, Brown said, adding that race “was never an issue.”
“He treated everyone fairly. I never observed him violate anyone’s civil liberties,” Brown said.
As a detective, Fuhrman was “very logical, very methodical,” Brown said. “He took a lot of pride in the investigative function. That’s why I had a lot of respect for him. He was a tenacious investigator.”
And as recently as last year, Fuhrman never offered any hint that he harbored racist views, according to another black officer, Palmer, who met Fuhrman at the West Los Angeles station about a month before the murders in Brentwood.
As often as several times a week over a period of six months, Palmer said, he and Fuhrman met before the day shift to play basketball, often with other African Americans.
“We would get there at 6:30 in the morning and sometimes it would be just the two of us,” Palmer said. “I would think this man had to get up at 5:40 in the morning to play basketball with me. Why . . . if you really hate African Americans, why would you do that?
“In fact, you know how some guys joke [to African Americans] and say, ‘You guys are all quick or you guys can all jump?’ He never even said anything like that,” Palmer said.
When all is said and done and the officers measure the Fuhrman they knew against the one now publicly indicted by his own words, explanations are hard to come by.
While his taped racist remarks spanned years, some officers believe their own experiences with Fuhrman prove that he made a dramatic change after his pension was denied and he underwent counseling.
“Ask yourself this: What do you do with the racist? You just show them a better way, you show them, expose them, so they can learn,” Alaniz said.
“Here is a person who told the department in 1982-83 that he was having problems dealing with minorities . . . then they put him through the psychological program and they said at some point he was rehabilitated. And later in his career he was hanging out with minority officers.”
Partridge added: “If anything, he represents, I think, what we want to do . . . [to] make changes in a person with a racist heart. We want somebody to change. He represents hope. He represents that a person can change, that attitudes can be influenced.”
But why, Partridge and others still wonder, would Fuhrman later have uttered such shocking comments, knowing full well they were taped, even after he returned to duty.
“That,” Partridge said, “is a piece of the puzzle that just doesn’t fit.”
Many people, of course, believe that those tapes reflect the true Fuhrman. But several officers said they are not so sure.
Instead, they said in interviews, they are convinced that Fuhrman’s outrageous language may have been nothing more than his attempt, however inexcusable, to help sell a screenplay by embellishing the life of an evil cop.
But sorting out fact and fiction is no easy matter.
In one of the most shocking tapes, Fuhrman described a savage beating by police officers and their success in duping Internal Affairs investigators about what happened.
“We basically tortured them,” Fuhrman says of an assault that was supposed to have followed the shooting of two officers in the Hollenbeck Division. “There were four policemen, four guys. We broke ‘em. Their faces were just mush. They had pictures of the walls with blood all the way to the ceiling, and finger marks from trying to crawl out of the room.”
The story closely parallels eyewitness accounts of a 1978 incident in Boyle Heights in which two officers were shot and 16 citizen complaints were later lodged against a dozen officers, including Fuhrman.
But officers at the incident have not corroborated Fuhrman’s account, contending that he exaggerated the story to make it more sensational--an explanation others believe or want to believe.
“He may have been goofing [the screenwriter], telling her what he thought she wanted to hear,” Brown said.
Even if that were true, the officers are left with one much tougher question:
What difference does it make now?
“As Chief [Willie] Williams said, it doesn’t matter. You make a statement like that, even if it is meant to be totally fictional, it is very damaging,” Partridge said.
And finally, there is the nagging realization among some officers that if Fuhrman is the racist they could not see, there must be more just like him. In their everyday lives. In the LAPD.
Palmer said: “The bottom line for me is that if he is that way, there have to be others out there.
“That,” he added, “is the most frightening thing about all of this.”
Times staff writer Robert Lopez contributed to this story.
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