Advertisement

Paying a Price for Freebies

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting on a restaurant patio, Anaheim Police Det. Bruce Bottolfson chomped on a chicken drumstick, violating department policy with every bite.

Moments earlier, the on-duty investigator had strolled into the El Pollo Loco on Anaheim’s Ball Road and ordered a two-piece chicken meal with cole slaw. Noticing the Anaheim Police Assn. logo on Bottolfson’s navy blue T-shirt, the cashier rang up the standard 50% police discount.

Handouts and price breaks for police officers--a free coffee here, half-price dry cleaning there--are time-honored and pervasive, woven into the very fabric of relations between police and public. Now, a band of reform-minded chiefs is trying to banish these benefits, arguing that they corrode a cop’s sense of right and wrong. To some department brass, the discounts are the last vestiges of graft that was once rife in American policing. They see freebies as a slippery slope likely to lead officers into greater sin. The Los Angeles Police Department’s report on the roots of the Rampart Division scandal faulted officers for taking free coffee and food and recommended that the department crack down on the practice.

To patrol officers, the rules are out of step with reality. Refusing a store owner’s generosity, they say, could destroy the very bridges they are supposed to build in era of community policing. They bristle at the suggestion that they can be bought for half the price of a chicken plate.

Advertisement

“This is harmless,” groused Bottolfson, who saved $2.70 on his meal at El Pollo Loco. Behind him, a black-and-white cruiser inched along the restaurant’s drive-through lane.

“Ask a chief, ‘Did you ever take a free cup of coffee from Winchell’s ?’ ” Bottolfson said, referring to the chain of doughnut shops. “If they say no, they’re lying to you.”

The world of police discounts has its own lexicon. Officers “badge” their way to a price break, “flex muscle” or wear the “blue discount suit.” Restaurants that give discounts “show love,” or, more commonly, “pop.”

Temptations lie on almost every street corner, with discounts extending well beyond food to include jewelry and motor vehicles, even free entry to strip clubs.

Advertisement

A model code of ethics developed by the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police includes a pledge against “accepting gratuities,” and almost every law enforcement agency in Southern California has such a prohibition. In police academies nationwide, cadets are warned about the ethical fallout from mooching.

“It sends the wrong message: that somehow police officers are entitled to something special,” said Cypress Police Chief John Hensley. “If it comes to my attention, there will be discipline meted out.”

Since taking the helm in Cypress three years ago, Hensley has moved aggressively to combat gratuities. Early on, he persuaded a local Sizzler restaurant to end police discounts. Last month, he talked the manager of a Starbucks coffee shop into halting the practice.

Crackdowns at other departments have become part of freebie folklore.

Advertisement

Simi Valley’s department caused a furor several years ago when it launched an investigation of officers who were hanging out at doughnut shops that gave handouts. The department declined to comment on what the probe found. San Diego police officers were once ordered to stay out of more than a dozen eateries that had refused to stop offering discounts.

Despite the efforts, freebies flourish. Pick Up Stix, the Chinese food chain, offers police a price break. In-N-Out Burger is well known among cops for discounting meals, though the company said it doesn’t have an official policy to do so.

The waitresses at most local Hooters restaurants offer discounts to police patrons (50% off, a Hooters spokesman said). Fantasy Ranch, a Long Beach strip club, waives the $7 entry fee for cops at the door.

“They’re good customers,” said Fantasy’s general manager, Jerry Westlund. “I’d probably let in PTA presidents and members of the clergy for free if I could get enough of them.”

Advertisement

From strip clubs to car dealerships, businesses realize that police officers make good customers. They come with a clean-cut image and, if they turn up in uniform, they provide cheap security.

Twenty-four-hour mini-marts--so vulnerable to crime that beat cops call them “stop-and-robs"--routinely offer police free coffee and sodas to encourage frequent visits. The discounts have become corporate policy at businesses like El Pollo Loco. At some eateries, cash registers have special keys that automatically calculate the break.

Focus on Businesses

Few chiefs have waged as vigorous a fight against gratuities as Michael Skogh, who retired this year from the Gardena Police Department.

Advertisement

Growing up in small-town Minnesota, Skogh watched his parents toil in the family ice cream parlor. The experience taught him how hard life could be for a small-business owner. Later, as a police officer in Orange County, Skogh had little respect for colleagues who ate for free in neighborhood stores.

“It’s a basically dishonest person abusing their power. They have no place in American policing,” he said.

As he won promotions, Skogh tried to put a dent in the practice. Scofflaws are almost impossible to catch in the act, he said, so he focused on the offending businesses. As a police captain in Manhattan Beach, Skogh went from cafe to cafe, urging owners to stop giving free coffee to his officers. Later, as chief in Los Alamitos, he made sure the Chamber of Commerce knew how he felt.

Three years ago, Skogh became chief of police in Gardena, where a throng of shops and restaurants drew hungry cops in search of a good deal.

Advertisement

Gardena Police Sgt. Thomas Kang remembers his own first day on the force 14 years ago. A training officer took him to a liquor store that supplied officers with free coffee and cigarettes. “That was the culture I was brought into,” said Kang, now head of the Gardena police union. “The fancy term was, ‘If you got no pop, you got no cop.’ It was an inside joke.”

On his arrival, Skogh told leaders of the police union that he wouldn’t tolerate the practice. To his surprise, they decided to back him. But officers became resentful when top brass were allowed to attend community lunches without paying. Despite the complaints, police fell into line. The city’s restaurants, however, did not. Many continue to offer police discounts, luring cops from nearby cities.

Come lunchtime, the parking lot in front of California Fish Grill on Artesia Boulevard is guaranteed a black-and-white cruiser or two. Along with fresh seafood, owner Victor Topete offers a 25% pop to police. “Everybody here in the block gives it,” he said. “It’s added security. The area can have a tendency to be a bit dangerous.” Local restaurateurs say that reducing or eliminating a “pop” will drive away police business and leave the establishments vulnerable to crime. When Shobi Zuberi and his brother bought their Sizzler restaurant in Gardena four years ago, the place drew officers from Torrance, Lawndale and Los Angeles thanks to its half-price meals.

When a HomeTown Buffet opened up nearby, Zuberi’s profits dropped and he cut his police discount to 15%. Officers stopped coming, he said. Then, one evening Zuberi was robbed at gunpoint. He restored the half-price discount. Officers began to trickle back, but the damage was done.

Advertisement

“Before, a lot of LAPD knew about it,” Zuberi said, “but now they don’t come around.”

Effect on Patrols

Law enforcement discounts date to an earlier era in policing, when officers were poorly paid and relied on the generosity of shopkeepers to make ends meet. Officers who defend the custom say that though they would not solicit freebies, they see no harm in accepting them when offered. In the vast majority of cases, they say, no favors are expected in return.

But there is evidence that the freebies do influence their work.

Advertisement

Hearing cops claim that discounts had no effect on patrols, two graduate students at Indiana University in Bloomington decided to conduct a test several years ago. The criminal justice students, William DeLeon-Granados and William Wells, staked out 20 restaurants, noting each time a patrol officer pulled up to eat.

The pair concluded that restaurants offering free or discounted food received far more visits from on-duty patrol officers than those that did not. The journal Police Quarterly published their 1998 report under the title “Do you want extra police coverage with those fries?”

“Even though they don’t feel like they’re giving in to favoritism, the gratuities were altering their patrol practices,” said DeLeon-Granados, who now works in Northern California as a consultant to police departments and community groups. In Los Angeles, the city’s police manual includes a general prohibition against accepting gratuities. But the rule is routinely ignored. The department acknowledged as much in its report on the Rampart scandal.

“Employees are well aware that this practice is tolerated in the form of reduced prices for meals and free coffee,” the report said. In a section offering recommendations for deterring future misconduct by officers, the report urged supervisors to enforce the prohibition on petty gifts.

Advertisement

Just what constitutes a gratuity, however, is unclear from the manual, and the department sometimes sanctions discounts more valuable than a hamburger or fries.

The Los Angeles police union’s monthly newsletter, The Thin Blue Line, is full of ads for cars, jewelry, even hearing aids, at special police rates. A plastic surgery consultant offers a law enforcement discount. So does a Tarzana parrot store (10% off birds and up to 20% off their food).

Galpin Ford, the huge Van Nuys car dealership, advertises “special consideration” for police officers and their families. Galpin’s owner is Bert Boeckmann, a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the five-member panel that oversees the LAPD. Boeckmann did not return calls seeking comment.

The Galpin offer and similar discounts do not violate the policy against gratuities, said Sgt. John Pasquariello, an LAPD spokesman. Officers are allowed to accept discounts from companies that are reaching out to police as a large group of valuable customers, he said.

Advertisement

They are not allowed to accept breaks when businesses expect a better level of service in return. Even in such cases, though, supervisors won’t take action unless an officer solicits a discount.

“Because 7-Eleven gives out a free cup of coffee,” Pasquariello said, “I don’t think we’re going to send out the dogs.”

William Bratton, the LAPD’s incoming chief, declined to give his views on discounts. But during a recent tour of Los Angeles, he appeared wary of the practice.

When the owner of a Greek restaurant in San Pedro suggested that he could eat for free on his next visit, Bratton replied: “We’ll have to check with the Ethics Commission on that one.”

Advertisement

Reasons to Accept

Though police officers welcome the chance to save a buck, they say there are other reasons to accept the discounts. When cashiers insist, officers say, they would rather flout policy than offend an employee or create a scene.

Anaheim’s Bottolfson said his department’s strict rule against discounts underestimates police. How, he asked, can supervisors trust officers to make life or death decisions but not to decide when a discount is harmless?

“They want to make out that there’s a big, slippery slope, but there’s not,” he said. “It’s not leading us down the road to perdition.”

Advertisement

Still, Bottolfson acknowledged that the practice is open to abuse. He ridicules the handful of officers he knows who take discounted pizzas and other meals home to their families. He rolls his eyes when he sees colleagues ask for discounts.

“That’s like begging. It’s undue pressure,” Bottolfson said. “How tough is it to say no to a uniformed cop? It’s very tough.”

*

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

Advertisement


Advertisement