Advertisement

A Glimpse Into Future of LAPD?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Policing here is not what it used to be.

Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice forced the city to agree to undertake sweeping reforms, almost exactly the kind of arrangement Los Angeles faces today.

In Pittsburgh, there have been clear signs of improvement: The Bureau of Police, which once did not even bother to record uses of force or to give its officers annual performance evaluations, now does both. The number of lawsuits against police officers has fallen. Sophisticated systems track the conduct of the city’s 1,000 officers, flagging them for the attention of supervisors when anything seems amiss. Civil rights activists who once received a flood of complaints against the police say they now hear far fewer allegations of wrongdoing.

And yet, there are also inklings of trouble: Crime has ticked up a few notches in a category or two, though not much more than in some other major cities. Police are leaving the department in higher-than-average numbers. And some officers say they’re so fed up with forced transfers, increased supervision and what they perceive as an ungrateful public that they’ve simply slacked off.

Advertisement

“When I came on, I had visions of working hard, becoming a detective. . . . Now, I’d just like to quietly retire out of the patrol division,” said Officer Kim Stanley, who has worked for the department for six years. “My partners all say that about the only way Kim would do a traffic stop these days is if some guy blew a red light with a baby tied to the bumper.”

All these things are fraught with implication for Los Angeles, which is finalizing its negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice over a consent decree requiring police reforms, one modeled in part on the Pittsburgh agreement. A final City Council vote accepting the decree is expected by the end of the month.

Pittsburgh’s lessons do not entirely favor one side or the other in Los Angeles’ continuing debate over police reform--in fact, they contain notes of caution for both.

They suggest that the key to reform’s success or failure is largely in the hands of the police department’s managers, who must implement change, and the political leaders, who must insist on progress rather than assuming that the existence of a decree guarantees it. Those realities are bound to raise questions about the vehement opposition to a decree by Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. Although they now have reconciled themselves to its inevitability, for months both men pulled string after string in Los Angeles and Washington in a futile effort to head off the deal.

Advertisement

The Pittsburgh experience also suggests that a consent decree may exacerbate tensions between reform advocates and police, not ease them.

And, finally, the lessons of Pittsburgh suggest that both sides would be wise to moderate their expectations.

Contrary to the warnings of opponents, there has been no federal “takeover” of Pittsburgh’s police and no cataclysmic outbreak of violence. At the same time, despite the claims of reform advocates, there is no conclusive evidence of a radical or permanent shift in the city’s approach to policing.

There has, however, been change. And it appears to have come faster than it ever would have without the federal government’s insistence.

Advertisement

“It’s painful to change, and that’s what’s happened here,” Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy said in an interview. “But we’ve taken a police department that was very much stuck in the 1950s and turned it into a much more professional one.”

*

There are many differences between the situation in Pittsburgh and the one in Los Angeles. Pittsburgh is a city of about 340,000 people--about one-tenth Los Angeles’ size. Its police department is similarly scaled, with about 1,000 officers compared with the LAPD’s 9,200.

Pittsburgh is a city of black and white, with just tiny populations of other ethnic minorities, though it does have culturally distinct enclaves within its white populace. Los Angeles is arguably the most diverse big city on earth.

Advertisement

The recent histories of their police departments are also divergent. In Los Angeles, police brutality was a fact of life through the 1970s and 1980s; officers were known to beat suspects who fled arrest. Until recently, however, the LAPD was renowned for its resistance to old-style corruption and for its determination to stay ahead of most urban departments in exploring new ideas about police management.

Not Pittsburgh. This was a police department that, by the mid-1990s, had fallen woefully behind the latest developments in policing.

For years, the department failed to keep any records of the incidence and seriousness of its officers’ use of force against citizens. Were Pittsburgh police particularly brutal? Critics say yes; police say no. What’s clear is that the department did not keep track.

Officers were not subject to any written annual evaluations, a common practice in public and private organizations.

Advertisement

Anonymous complaints of police abuse were ignored altogether, and even in cases in which witnesses came forward, officers were regularly given the benefit of the doubt when their accounts of an incident clashed with those of others, according to many observers.

For years, the public and the legal community in Pittsburgh were ignorant of those facts, buried within the department’s off-limits records. That began to change in early 1995, when Timothy O’Brien, a local lawyer who had handled a number of police abuse complaints, got a judge’s permission to review Pittsburgh police files on cases in which automobile stops had escalated into physical conflict between officer and the people who had been halted.

Irritated city officials said it would be too difficult to sort out those cases from the rest of the internal affairs files. They suggested that O’Brien review all the files himself and decide on his own what he needed.

Left to his own devices--"like a kid in a candy store,” one colleague recalls--O’Brien and an intern spent the entire summer culling through files covering the period from roughly 1988 to 1995. What they found was a police department in disarray.

Advertisement

According to court files, officers who beat suspects were not disciplined. When suspects talked back, they were falsely arrested for public intoxication in retaliation, but the officers involved were never disciplined. Five police officers had testified that they had helped fix tickets; they were never investigated or disciplined.

Over that seven-year period, not one officer was fired on the basis of a civilian’s complaint of misconduct.

By the time O’Brien got a look at those files, Robert McNeilly was the newly appointed chief of police. He does not share O’Brien’s dim view of the department, but the new chief had reform on his mind too.

A blunt man with blue eyes and the look of a wrestler, McNeilly came up through the ranks. He knew his department’s weaknesses and came to the job with a list of reforms he wanted to carry out. McNeilly proposed new types of training and record-keeping. He wanted to upgrade the department’s policies on use of force and he wanted to build a computer system for tracking officers.

Advertisement

Even though some of those proposals were supported by the police union, McNeilly made little headway. The mayor’s emphasis--in Pittsburgh, as in Los Angeles--was on fighting crime, not cleaning up police misconduct.

Then came the lawsuit.

*

The differences between the opposing camps in Pittsburgh’s continuing police reform struggle are embodied in their respective headquarters.

Advertisement

Witold Walczak holds court in the American Civil Liberties Union’s two-story townhouse on a leafy Pittsburgh street. On a recent Thursday morning, volunteers were copying and filing downstairs while Walczak, executive director of the organization, discussed police reform in his upstairs office. A picture of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan hangs over his desk. Crayon drawings by his young child hang nearby. Empty Dr Pepper cans are scattered on piles of paperwork here and there.

A few miles away, Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Chuck Bosetti made his war room in his tidy apartment. The walls were decorated with posters of wolves. On the table one recent morning sat freshly cleaned pistols; knives were displayed on the bookshelves. A human silhouette used in target practice sat behind the front door. When the doorbell rang, it played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Walczak and Bosetti could hardly be more different. Walczak is determined but soft-spoken, deliberate with facts and argument. Bosetti is distracted and volcanic. When another car rolled through a stop sign in front of the car he was driving, Bosetti yelled out the window: “Your ticket’s in the mail.” Then he muttered a vulgarity under his breath.

Walczak was one of the civil rights leaders who filed the lawsuit against the police March 27, 1996. Bosetti is one of its chief opponents--as well as a vehement critic of the Justice Department, whose lawyers he derides as Washington-based ideologues bent on trampling constitutional rights in a quest to federalize police work.

Advertisement

The lawsuit broke open the topic of police abuse in Pittsburgh. It alleged widespread misconduct by police, and it demanded that a judge step in and halt the department’s allegedly illegal practices and improve its lax supervision.

The suit helped propel an ultimately successful political campaign to create a civilian review board to examine allegations of police misconduct. Most important, in retrospect, it caught the attention of the Justice Department, which two years earlier had received authority to sue police departments for engaging in a “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations.

After the lawsuit was filed, Justice Department officials started sniffing around Pittsburgh. They interviewed some of those who alleged police misconduct, pored over records, even showed up at police headquarters with their own copying machines and left with boxes of documents.

Mayor Murphy didn’t like it. As late as Feb. 12, 1997, almost a year after the suit was filed, he was bitterly complaining that the Justice Department investigators were “a group of people who have little understanding how to run a police department.”

Advertisement

Two weeks later, faced with the threat of fighting, not only the ACLU suit, but also one by the federal government, the mayor apologized for his outburst and signed the decree. As part of that settlement:

* The police department was ordered to set up a computer system to track officers’ performance, citizens’ complaints, arrests and the like.

* Officers are now required to undergo annual performance evaluations.

* Police are forced to document every use of force, every warrantless search and every traffic stop.

Advertisement

* Every allegation of misconduct, including those made anonymously, must be investigated.

* Officers who are the subject of repeated complaints, even those not proved, are required to undergo training, counseling or transfer.

* And, most important, the city’s compliance with the decree is under the supervision of an outside monitor, whose appointment was approved by both the city and the federal government but who reports only to a federal judge.

Although the Los Angeles decree is still being drafted, some of the provisions of Pittsburgh’s agreement will not be applied here.

Advertisement

The LAPD for instance, already conducts personnel evaluations and records uses of force.

According to the draft decree, Los Angeles will, however, be required to upgrade its computerized officer-tracking system and, for the first time, to record the race of every person stopped for a traffic violation or on foot. The draft also contains a number of provisions that go far beyond where Pittsburgh left off.

One clear lesson of life under the Pittsburgh decree is that few decisions for Los Angeles will be more important than the impending choice of the monitor. In Pittsburgh, that job fell to James Ginger, a professor and former police officer who combined a background in law enforcement with a subsequent career in management consulting.

Early on, he pressed the police department for progress in developing its computerized officer-tracking system and chided supervisors when they made errors in completing reports on the use of force against civilians.

Advertisement

“The failure of supervisory and command review is serious,” Ginger reported in December 1998, when he discovered errors in two out of 63 “subject resistance reports” that ranking officers had failed to detect.

More recently, he has warned that a backlog of internal investigations threatens to undermine fulfillment of the decree.

*

The front wall of the Zone 6 station in Pittsburgh is plastered over. Its windows were covered after a man pulled his car up in front and fired into the station.

Advertisement

The police here are not happy.

“I loved this job for 28 years. I’ve hated it for the last three,” said Lt. Steve Starcich, who oversees a morning watch in Zone 6. He added that his officers, once eager to get out and tackle crime, now go through the motions, avoiding any conflict they can.

That’s not true of all of them.

Officer Anthony Moreno led all uniformed Pittsburgh police in arrests in 1998. Decree or no decree, he plans to lead the department again this year. He’s never had a sustained complaint of misconduct.

Advertisement

But Moreno says his supervisors, who once cited him as a model police officer, now warn him to cut it out. “I was told that I have to stop doing this because they’re looking at me,” he said. “I was called a dinosaur the other day.”

George Anthony Phillips has 21 years with the department, has been shot five times and is the city’s most highly decorated police officer. He, too, sees the signs of pulling back.

“The officers on the job are just working the job,” Phillips said of his colleagues. “They’re not doing the job.”

Arrests for minor offenses are down. So are traffic citations. It’s not unusual these days for a Pittsburgh police officer to go several months without writing a single ticket.

Advertisement

Some of those who continue to do their jobs say they’ve learned new tricks to stay out of trouble. The computerized tracking system flags officers who stop a disproportionate number of minority-group members when compared with others on the same shift. So when new officers transfer to a place like Zone 6, where the population is largely white, from more heavily black areas, some self-impose a moratorium on arresting blacks. According to officers, they will go for several months arresting only whites until their statistics reflect the station and shift averages.

Like all other things in police work, it has a nickname. It’s called: “Pie-chart management.”

*

City Solicitor Jacqueline Morrow is an aggressive, articulate lawyer. She’s outspoken and hardly one to look the other way in the face of police abuse.

Advertisement

But when the Department of Justice rolled into town threatening to sue Pittsburgh over the state of its police force, Morrow was not impressed.

“There’s a part of me that’s troubled by the arrogance of the Justice Department,” she said. “They came in here with their bow ties and laptops.”

Morrow, who is African American added: “I never thought I’d feel what Bull Connor felt like, but they came in here and bullied us.” (Connor was police commissioner in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.)

Despite the lawsuits against the Bureau of Police and the allegations of its critics, Morrow said she believes that the department’s problems were overstated.

Advertisement

“This is not a corrupt police force,” she said. “It was a young police force with inconsistent management.”

And yet, today, having defended the city and fought hard for its position in the decree negotiations, Morrow is among those who believe that Pittsburgh is better off for the federal government’s intervention. Reforms that would have languished in the face of political or fiscal opposition were put at the top of the civic agenda, she said. Lawsuits against the police, which leaped from nine in 1995 to 63 in 1996, have tailed off. Last year, just eight were filed against the department.

Chief McNeilly also sees his department with new pride.

“It was a slap in the face at first,” he said. “But if we can get beyond that--and we had to get beyond that--there is nothing in there that some other police department isn’t doing or that isn’t an accepted best practice in policing.”

Advertisement

And Mayor Murphy, the same mayor who once complained that Justice Department officials did not know what they were doing, agrees.

Today’s Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is a model of professionalism, Murphy said. Other departments seek its advice on management. Crime is under control, and the public, outraged by violence in the early 1990s, now lists jobs and urban cleanup higher on its litany of city priorities. Yes, Murphy concedes, some police officers continue to complain, but he believes that most “want to get the job done and get on with their lives.”

For those about to enter a consent decree, Murphy advises taking a tough line in negotiations. “Use it to do things that you want to do anyhow,” he advised.

But Murphy hasn’t had the chance to communicate that advice directly to his counterparts in Los Angeles. Riordan, the Pittsburgh mayor says, has never called.

Advertisement

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

2 Cities, 2 Consent Decrees

In February 1997, Pittsburgh entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice that forced many reforms of that city’s police department. Since that time, violent crime has remained relatively constant in Pittsburgh. Los Angeles is on the verge of entering into a similar deal with the federal government.

*

Advertisement

PITTSBURGH VS. LOS ANGELES

PITTSBURGH

Population: 340,520 (49th-largest city in the U.S.)

Area: 55.6 square miles

Advertisement

Per capita income: $26,243

Education: Home to three universities, six colleges and 86 public schools.

Police department: About 1,000 officers

Miscellaneous: Settled in 1758, became a city in 1816. Center of commerce since before the Civil War, in part because of its location at the intersection of two major rivers. Once the home of the steel industry, now a more modern, high-tech center.

Advertisement

*

LOS ANGELES

Population: 3.6 million (second-largest U.S. city)

Area: 469.3 square miles

Advertisement

Per capita income: $25,719

Education: 192 colleges and universities, 1,678 public schools, 1,470 private schools.

Police department: About 9,200 officers

Miscellaneous: Founded by Spain in 1781, captured by the U.S. in 1846, incorporated as a U.S. city in 1850. Major center of commerce, particularly with Latin America and Asia. Badly hurt by recession, riots and earthquake in the early 1990s, now enjoying relatively healthy and growing economy.

Advertisement

Sources: Cities of the U.S., 1990 Census, Uniform Crime Reports by the FBI, Pittsburgh Police Department


Advertisement