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Former Chief Turns Focus to New Force

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Los Angeles Police Chief Bayan Lewis is ringing in the new year with a new job but the same familiar career.

Lewis has been picked to head a new Los Angeles County government police force that will automatically become one of the largest in Southern California.

County officials have selected Lewis to head their Office of County Security, which will be responsible for patrolling a vast network of hospitals and health clinics, parks, welfare offices and other public facilities.

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Lewis, 55, admits that he has his work cut out for him. Those facilities are now patrolled by about 700 officers who work for three independent public safety agencies with widely varying standards for training, discipline and deployment.

Lewis, who will make $95,650 a year, must turn that hodgepodge of public safety officers into one cohesive and well-trained unit. And the job must be done quickly so that the county can turn the agency over to the Sheriff’s Department by 2000 in accordance with the Board of Supervisors’ wishes.

“I think the supervisors wanted to put everyone under one umbrella, so they’re all singing from the same sheet of music,” Lewis said.

To achieve that, he plans to use the Sheriff’s Department’s standards as a bible of sorts during the consolidation process.

He wants to avoid “the same huge problems that happened with the conversion of the MTA police into the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department,” he said.

In that conversion last fall, the LAPD and Sheriff Sherman Block sought to absorb the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s police and assume responsibility for patrolling the MTA’s trains and stations.

The move was fraught with problems. Most serious was that many MTA officers had problems that arose during background checks, leaving them unqualified for the LAPD or Sheriff’s Department.

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Eventually, the consolidation problems were resolved, but it took more than two years.

County officials have wanted the Sheriff’s Department to assume control of their three public safety departments for years, but Block balked, saying privately that it would be too hard to bring the officers up to the standards of his own deputies.

But he dropped his resistance after the county allocated more funds for training and consolidating the separate agencies.

The various county police agencies have been plagued by problems in recent years, and their officers are woefully underpaid and, in some cases, not well trained, county officials said. The county safety officers work for the departments of Health Services, Internal Services and Parks and Recreation.

In recent years, there have been assaults, attacks and even fatal shootings in parks, welfare offices and county hospitals.

County officials have said they worry that such conditions will get worse as funds for health and welfare are cut even more.

The consolidation will cost the county about $3.6 million extra a year, but the supervisors said it will be worth the money to have one unified police force that can be deployed anywhere within county facilities.

The annual budget for the Office of County Security will be about $43 million next year, Lewis said.

Although county officials posted the job in November, they had already asked Lewis to consider accepting the post because they thought they needed a strong and highly visible leader.

Lewis said county Personnel Director Michael J. Henry told him that two other candidates were interviewed, both from the existing three county public safety agencies.

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Neither Henry nor the personnel officer working on the selection process, Jeffrey Samsom, were available for comment.

Lewis’s credentials include serving three decades with the Los Angeles Police Department, the last three months as chief.

He accepted the top LAPD job last May, bridging the gap between deposed Chief Willie L. Williams and a new chief while the selection process was underway. Chief Bernard C. Parks was selected later in the summer.

Although his tenure was one of the briefest in LAPD history, Lewis was credited for leaving a noticeable mark, moving quickly to address a range of thorny issues and injecting life and leadership into a department that had been adrift and demoralized for at least a year.

Lewis said he hopes to do the same with county police officers, whom he described as mostly good and qualified personnel who had suffered under years of low pay, poor equipment and a “stepchild” mentality generated by laboring in the shadow of the Sheriff’s Department.

He has set up various committees in an effort to consolidate the operations and improve officer training as soon as possible.

Each of the three existing agencies has its own 24-hour communications center. Lewis plans to consolidate them into one network so all officers can operate on the same communications frequency.

One task force will look at that issue and how to best upgrade all communications and dispatch equipment, which Lewis said was outmoded.

Other task forces will look at personnel, discipline, budget, transportation and training.

According to Lewis, training is one area that will take a lot of work and money.

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Because of confrontations with armed gang members in parks, the park police are the only county safety officers required to have certification in advanced tactical and weapons training, he said.

But that training still may not match Sheriff’s Department requirements, and the other county safety officers will need significant training even to reach the level of the park police.

And all of the officers will need training in sexual and workplace harassment issues and cultural sensitivity before they can be absorbed by the Sheriff’s Department, Lewis said.

Balancing deployment and training will be difficult, he said.

He wants a large number of officers to undergo the time-intensive seminars at the same time, without causing too deep a cut in patrols in hundreds of county facilities.

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And Lewis said he will have to address the same potentially touchy problem that arose in negotiations to absorb MTA officers.

Many of the county officers were hired essentially as security guards and may have backgrounds that include criminal convictions, domestic violence or alcohol and drug problems that may make them unacceptable for the Sheriff’s Department, Lewis said.

Another problem is that the safety agencies each have vacancy rates of as much as 20%, in part because the officers’ traditionally low pay has made it hard to recruit qualified candidates.

County supervisors raised their pay by about 25% three weeks ago, Lewis said, which should make it easier for him to attract and hire more than 100 officers.

Lewis said he plans to keep the three distinct subagencies basically intact and allow them to concentrate on their specialized areas, such as patrolling parks. But he wants to prepare them for deployment anywhere during emergencies, he said.

He has no immediate plans for making wholesale changes in the leadership of the various agencies, he said, adding that he may change his mind once he has had time to see how they operate.

“For now, I’m looking at the people who are there now,” Lewis said.

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“My intent is not to bring in a whole bunch of my buddies. I’d like to work with the people who are there. Many of them are very talented, and I need to develop the talent that is there.”

Lewis said is leaning heavily on Lee Taylor, a retired sheriff’s lieutenant who has spent the last several years as a county consultant, on how to best consolidate its police forces.

Taylor, Lewis said, “has proven to be an invaluable asset.”

Because of the unusual situation in which Lewis finds himself, he said he will need all the help he can get.

“When you step into an office that has just been created, it is different than anything I have ever done before,” he said.

“I am going through the pain and suffering of having to put together a new function rather than stepping into an existing function.

“I don’t have a uniform yet, and my office isn’t even painted.”


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