In the New LAPD, Height Doesn't Make Right

You must be this tall to read this column.

But not to join the LAPD.

In adopting a no-minimum-height rule, the Los Angeles Police Department joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and almost everyone except the United States Marines and the Autopia ride at Disneyland.

Get the barrage of jokes out of the way first: the ones about cops needing booster seats at Winchell's, about cops more likely to be killed by an inflatable air bag in the patrol car than by a bad guy.

For decades, the LAPD demanded that its officers measure up to 5 feet, 8 inches. Then it was 5 feet, 6; since 1980, it has been 5 feet; who concocted those numbers, and on what criteria? Who knows?

Five feet barely qualifies as "tall" at all, except for jockeys and ball turret gunners. Sixty inches is only eight above the minimum height for driving one of the bumper cars at Autopia, and the age requirement there is 7 years old.

Yet short people--especially women who are not quiet as cloistered nuns--are often described in condescending terms like "spunky," or the repellent "feisty." Who would doubt that Sen. Barbara Boxer or attorney Leslie Abramson--now technically recruitment material for the LAPD on height alone--could kick butt and take names as needed?

Federal law prohibits height-weight requirements without "specific performance-related reason," which in the NBA would include guarding that 7-foot-7 Romanian center with the Bullets. But for Edith Perez, the barely 5-foot police commissioner, there is no "rational relationship" between height and "what police officers do."

The no-minimum rule is not entirely about protecting the department's legal flanks, even though Chief Willie L. Williams' memo cited legal advice that a height requirement could run the risk of "future liability and the possibility of a class-action lawsuit," perhaps from women and Asian Americans.

The no-minimum rule is not even about rough justice, although if, as they say, men have spent centuries trying to persuade women that size doesn't matter, what went round has now come round.

No, this is about that new LAPD, the one that supposedly values brains at least as much as brawn, the Archimedean police force that employs levers and pulleys to get the job done instead of brute strength or low cunning, that takes on the corporate motto, "work smarter, not harder."

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Now, some officers think the LAPD has thrown out every yardstick, not just the 5-foot one, in the press to add cops to meet Mayor Richard Riordan's pledge, to diversify the force to meet the Christopher Commission standards. Age requirements went in 1992. (Remember that ballyhooed 59-year-old rookie who bailed out?) The only thing that has not yet fallen is "the wall," a 6-foot cliff that has to be climbed to graduate from the Police Academy.

Charlie Duke--SWAT sergeant, 6 feet, 230 pounds--is old-guard, two years from retirement, and it isn't the no-minimum height that bothers him; every standard "has been lowered, as they've been lowered time and time again."

Jeri Weinstein is more than a dozen years younger than Charlie Duke, and a foot shorter, and hasn't she taken a load of crap about that in her nearly 14 years on the LAPD? But both of them wear sergeant's stripes and on some matters you'd say they see eye to eye.

The height requirement is a relic, she says, but getting rid of it isn't necessarily going to make for better cops. We may not need cops as big as all outdoors, but we do need cops with more upstairs.

"We have people on this job who cannot write. I guess they can read, but I'm not sure about that. We have people that have no common sense. We've hired people who've turned out to be major problems. . . . If we want to have a quality police department we need to take a look at our standards," she says.

"It doesn't matter how many blacks we have, how many women, how many Asians. We need quality people. You can have a college degree and not be a smart person. You can have no college degree and be totally suited for this job."

To look at Weinstein, you wouldn't think she belongs out there--she knows that. "But I've got good common sense, I speak well, have a command presence. I know my job. And I know my limitations."

"You can be 6-foot-5 and not have any of that."

The Weinstein Rule for Better Police:

"We need higher standards, not height standards."

Today, Los Angeles has a police department with no minimum height requirements. But what Los Angeles also has is a department that still has to figure out how to measure up.

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