LAPD gang units feel the pinch of financial disclosure rule

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The LAPD is struggling to fill vacancies in gang units as a financial disclosure rule meant to fight corruption has been received by many rank-and-file cops as an insult -- and a deal-breaker when it comes to working the tough gangland assignments.

After years of contentious battles with police union representatives over the issue, Los Angeles Police Department officials pushed through a policy in April that requires gang officers to disclose details of their personal finances.

Intended to help supervisors catch cops who are taking bribes or to identify officers in financial straits who might be tempted to stray, the policy has considerable reach: Officers must disclose outside income, real estate, stocks and other assets. They also have to report the size of bank accounts and debts, including mortgages and credit cards. And the disclosures apply to any financial holdings a cop shares with family members and business partners.

When it went into effect, then-Chief William J. Bratton and other officials insisted that the policy would have little effect on recruiting and retaining gang cops and vowed to block efforts by officers to leave gang units en masse in protest.

But erosion in the ranks is apparent. According to interviews with police officers and gang unit supervisors across the city, the number of officers dedicated to fighting gangs is beginning to drop. And top brass now acknowledge that they must do more to confront discontent and distrust.

Percolating indications of trouble can be found across the city.

Earlier this year, for instance, supervisors at the Newton Area station in South Los Angeles, where 51 street gangs are active in the nine-square-mile patrol area, received permission from higher-ups to add 14 officers to the station’s gang operation. It was welcome news and would have nearly doubled the number of officers dedicated to gang activity. Few officers, however, applied for the job.

Surprised, supervisors resorted to measures they’d never taken before, such as placing notices in cop newsletters. Nothing seemed to work. The reason, they said: the new financial disclosure policy.

The policy also includes officers serving on narcotics details, although the discontent seems focused among gang officers. The roughly 600 officers already assigned to affected units when the policy went into effect in April were granted a two-year grace period, and so far it appears that few, if any, officers have left a gang assignment rather than sign the forms. The problem, the supervisors say, is one of attrition.

LAPD officers have traditionally moved from one assignment to the next with great regularity. Gang units are affected along with all other divisions. But now, officers who want to join gang units for the first time have to sign the disclosure forms, and few appear willing to do that.

When gang teams are hit with the usual mix of transfers and promotions, jobs open up. According to department figures, 20 new gang officers across the city -- and a few narcotics officers -- have agreed to sign the disclosure forms, but supervisors say that hasn’t been nearly enough to keep pace with new vacancies.

Another LAPD rule sets a five-year cap on the number of consecutive years an officer can work in a gang unit. That makes for an even higher rate of turnover in gang units than in many other LAPD divisions, compounding the problem.

Uncertain of the actual number of vacancies throughout the department, top LAPD officials are conducting an audit of gang unit enrollment. They expect it to be completed in coming weeks.

Supervisors and gang officers, however, said the problem is serious. One South L.A. gang unit that had 18 officers at the beginning of the year is down to 13, with more departures expected in the coming months. Another had 35 gang officers; it now has 24. Newton eventually filled most of the new positions approved by the department, but only by poaching gang officers from other stations, not by training new ones. Today, seven months after the positions were approved, five remain vacant.

Supervisors and area commanders have tried to take matters into their own hands. Many, if not most, gang units in the city “overstaffed” earlier this year, with too many officers assigned to them intentionally, as a buffer against the onset of the financial disclosure rule. But already, those units are seeing their numbers drop to levels at or below where they were before the over-staffing.

In interviews, officers gave numerous reasons why they would seek assignments elsewhere in the department rather than abide by the disclosure rules. Some said they fear the data could be used against them in discipline proceedings or in court, and others said they question the department’s ability to store the information safely. Others said the disclosure rules do little to catch or deter rogue police officers.

“Rooting out corruption is a worthy goal. This doesn’t do that. It deters guys from wanting to do the job,” said one gang unit supervisor. Like most gang officers interviewed for this article, he requested anonymity because some gang units have been ordered not to discuss the effects of the rule.

Most, however, say it is simply a matter of principle and fairness.

Although some other federal and local law enforcement agencies require disclosures by their officers, officials of the Police Protective League, LAPD’s union, said a survey turned up none as extensive as L.A.’s.

The problem is seen as particularly acute and time-sensitive in South L.A. -- not because of what’s gone wrong but because of what’s gone right.

Crime has dropped in many areas of the city but has seen a particularly pronounced decline in South L.A. By the end of October, for instance, no station had recorded a sharper decline in serious crime than Newton, a 15.2% decline from the same period in 2008.

Gang members are responsible for the majority of serious crime in Newton, and the station had recorded 656 gang arrests through the end of October, a 76.8% increase over the 371 arrests made through the same period in 2008.

Gang unit supervisors said they expect the shortage of new, qualified gang officers to accelerate next year. The troubles, they said, will climax in early 2011, when the grace period for existing gang officers expires and everyone serving in a gang unit will be required to sign the disclosure forms. That, one supervisor contended, will result in a “mass exodus.”

The issue has boiled over in recent weeks; at some gang-unit meetings, supervisors have tried to shout down veteran gang officers who are preaching to recruits about the dangers of the disclosure rule.

Earl Paysinger, assistant chief in charge of the department’s office of operations, downplayed the possibility that a large number of gang cops would leave their posts at the end of the grace period.

In the past, LAPD brass have said they would not approve assignment transfer requests of large numbers of gang officers if doing so would compromise the department’s ability to fight gang crime.

Paysinger, however, acknowledged the brewing discontent among officers about perceived risks and the resulting increase in pressure on department commanders to address the issue with officers at roll call meetings and elsewhere.

The disclosure rule is rooted in controversy.

Late in 2007, after several years of unsuccessful negotiations with the union, LAPD officials pushed ahead with the disclosure plan. Department officials had grown increasingly determined to shed a federal consent decree that had been forced on the department after a scandal involving misconduct by gang officers. Establishment of disclosure rules for officers in specialized units that frequently handle cash or drugs was one of the last outstanding reforms required by the decree.

Officials of the Police Protective League objected angrily and immediately launched a legal bid to defeat the disclosures; it has so far been unsuccessful. They also embarked on an aggressive campaign to turn officers against the policy, instructing them not to join the units.

For their part, gang officers’ supervisors have grown frustrated that the disclosures have poisoned an already small pool of candidates for the assignments. Good gang officers must know when to be tough and aggressive -- and they must have patience and aplomb, because success entails building good relationships on the street. That combination of skills is rare, said one gang supervisor.

Paysinger conceded that the financial reporting rules have further complicated what has long been the challenge of persuading qualified and committed officers to accept the trying, often thankless assignments that offer no additional pay, dangerous foot pursuits and frequent allegations of excessive force by suspects.

“I’d be disingenuous to suggest otherwise,” he said. “Cops tend to be private people.”

Still, he said, there is a long history of cops initially gnashing their teeth over new requirements ordered from on high.

He said he expects officers’ concerns over the disclosures to subside as the number of cops who agree to submit the information ticks upward and word spreads “that the boogie man isn’t really there.”

Indeed, said Sgt. Greg Garcia: “I signed.”

Garcia, a 19-year veteran, recently became a leader of a team of Newton gang cops. One recent night in South L.A., he drove past gang members’ names spray-painted on the walls of a parking lot: Smoky and Whisper, Scrappy and Trouble.

Garcia said his career has been good to him -- particularly given that he was “just a kid with a high school diploma.” He said he respects other officers’ decisions not to sign but he said he decided it was the right thing to do.

“They gave me an opportunity to do something with my life,” he said. “There comes a time when it is time to give something back to the department.”