The Big Mac Blog

One night with the “biggest and the baddest”: The LAPD

From the back seat of an LAPD SUV on Dec. 30, 2014.
From the back seat of an LAPD SUV on Dec. 30, 2014. Star-Telegram

The night before New Year’s Eve I spent an afternoon and evening with members of the Los Angeles Police Department in its downtown headquarters. I did two ride alongs, part of which included a robbery call, and a tour of LA’s most depressed area – skid row in downtown. As officers across the country deal with the issue of using excessive force in light of the police-related deaths in Ohio, Missouri and New York, it was similar and inferior to the awful reputation that the LAPD once had.

This is the story of one department’s attempt at transformation.

“My own mama’s ashamed of me. She tells everybody I’m a drug dealer.” - LAPD officer Carter from the movie Rush Hour

String the letters L, A, P, and D together and multiple generations instantly goes to police intimidation. Meanness. Aggression. Brutality. LAPD is the grainy black and white video of four cops beating up Rodney King. LAPD means the LA/Rodney King riots. LAPD means Mark Fuhrman’s racist testimony during the O.J. Simpson trial. LAPD means Daryl Gates’ bullying tactics. When you thought about excessive force, you thought LAPD.

“Biggest and the baddest,” veteran Los Angeles Police Department officer Robert Frutos says. “Back then, our philosophy was aggressive force. We were an occupying force.”

Aggressive. Occupying. Those are the same tactics the American military used during the initial stages of the Iraq War II. Like the LA cops on the other side of the world, the U.S. military decided aggression and occupying don’t keep the peace.

There have been other police forces with unpleasant pasts. New York City, Chicago and New Orleans all had periods of corruption, but the face of police brutality once exclusively belonged to the LAPD cop. The face of white cops beating up black citizens used to belong to the LAPD cop.

Today, police departments in NYC, STL, and CLE all deal with strained to horrid relationships with the citizens they are paid to protect and serve. LA dealt with this until it became a national punch line, and re-invented itself to create a new identity. It will never be perfect, but for anyone alive during the days of the Rodney King riots, it can be so much worse, and be so much better.

It’s takes years, a lot of quiet days, and trust is tenuous.

TWO STEPS FORWARD

Frutos was active when the King verdict was delivered, and the hell ensued in 1992. His station was in Southeast LA - the mecca of unrest, looting and violece.

“I was scared. I was saddened,” Frutos says. “That was my city.”

LAPD commander Andrew Smith has a picture of himself in full riot gear holding a shotgun during the riots hanging in his downtown office. It’s a bizarre photo. He’s standing in front of chaos like he is a tourist.

“See if you can get this in: I remember some old lady called me a maggot a—devil mother (blank),” he says.

More than 20 years since the King riots, police are under fire - literally – all over the nation. The high profile deaths of citizens at the hands of police in Ferguson, New York City and Cleveland have a lot of people believing the cops are using unnecessary force, sometimes with the aid of equipment and firepower more appropriate for Call of Duty. The LAPD, once formerly renowned for its embodiment of excessive force, has escaped the national wrath. But to angry citizens leery of cops, blue and white is blue and white.

“After the Rodney King riots, the relationship between LAPD and the communities was a one,” Frutos says. “In the summer (of ’14), it was an eight. Now, after everything that has happened, it’s a three. These incidents that have taken place across the nation, now it’s ours.”

Tonight, in the 39-degree temperatures and rain, 10 people, some children, peacefully protest outside the LAPD headquarters. Protests have been plentiful around here for the past few months. Protesters gathered by the thousands when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown. More gathered when New York City citizen Eric Garner was killed by a NYPD cop. None of the protests turned violent.

Compounding the heat around here, even on a wet and cold night, is that back on Aug. 11, 2014 25-year-old Ezell Ford Jr. of South LA was killed when LAPD officers shot him three times. The autopsy report revealed that he was shot twice in the arm, and once in the back. The fact that the report took four months to be released has some citizens and civic leaders fearing whatever progress the LAPD has made since the turn of the century was a mirage. That the biggest and baddest is just a bad night away from returning.

For any department, this is not good. For people with long memories, it reopens a terrible wound. For the police themselves, it’s perceived not only as a breach, but that not much has changed.

A NEW ORDINARY

Veteran officers Daniel Mendoza and Pat Welsh have me in the backseat of their police SUV for the final hour of their shift. The LAPD wants shifts covered in twos these days.

“They want us together because of what happened in New York,” Walsh says.

The murders of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn has cops all over knowing they are targets. A few days before I did my tour, two LA cops were shot at as well because ... well, they are cops. And they were in the way. Shots were fired at an LAPD patrol car, but no one was injured.

“It hasn’t freaked me out, but I do hope there is not some copy cat who thinks it’s cool,” Walsh says.

Walsh says some citizens mock him with the “Hands up – Don’t Shoot!” gesture made famous from the Aaron Wilson-Michael Brown shootings. Some cops wear Kevlar vests. Some don’t. They are supposed to. The cop either chooses to acknowledge the increased threat, or he doesn’t. Many do. Many do not.

“It’s nothing that is out of the ordinary. The job itself is always going to be dangerous,” Mendoza says. “I like it. It’s challenging.”

We drive down Skid Row – an area of downtown LA. occupied by homeless people who sleep in tents set up on sidewalks, a few blocks away from a place that sell $14 hamburgers. Well within sight of this blight is a high rise Double Tree hotel. It is cold. It is wet. It is rainy. It is undeniably sad.

It’s not gangs. It’s not cocaine. It’s just a series of people, a great many of whom suffer from mental illness, existing meagerly by the minute. Frutos says the single biggest problem the LAPD faces is not gangs, drugs, or guns but right here - mental illness. It is difficult to define, and even harder to help. Ezell Ford was diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia.

There is no sign of strained relations between the police and these citizens here. This is one of the most crime-ridden areas of LA, but this is not the part of town where unrest could potentially unify to be a problem. Those are the areas that blew up after the King verdict. That’s where Ford was shot.

All of this is ordinary for an LAPD cop, and many elsewhere throughout the US.

“Look,” Mendoza said. “It’s a job that not everyone can do.”

CHANGING THE IMAGE

The shooting of Ezell Ford immediately conjured up the images of the LAPD that was known for its excessive force and aggression. Under former LAPD chief Daryl Gates, this department exercised and distributed force liberally. As far as a national image, it did not to help the LAPD when Hollywood actors such as Mel Gibbs playing LAPD cops who shot everything in sight.

Pop culture worshiped cops as gun-toting bad asses that wielded force with no retribution. The image of a cop chasing and shooting a designated bad guy was reassuring, until it actually played out on real streets with predictably bad results.

“The biggest problem we have is the perception that the police are out there to violate your rights,” Frutos says. “The police are over-aggressive and the police are not kind or compassionate.”

Commander Smith says firing those types became a priority when the philosophy shifted from aggression. As is the case with any bureaucracy, dumping employees takes time, red tape, and paperwork. Regardless, some cops are still over-aggressive. Some cops are still neither kind nor compassionate. Cops are people. Some people are angry, and mean. Sometimes, no training can unchange those traits.

This is not fairly analogous, but much like the American military in Iraq, the LAPD decided cramming it down a communities’ throat was outdated. Attitudes towards law enforcement changed and society shifted. The last thing anyone wanted was an American version of the Stasi, or a real life Dirty Harry. The last to know were often the cops themselves.

In the last decade at the LAPD there has been a deliberate attempt at patience, cooperation and understanding of the people they are paid to serve. There has been a deliberate attempt at curbing aggression, and understanding not everything is worth the fight.

“It has changed for the better,” Walsh says. “We used to stop people and not explain what we were doing. We get more support, too, just in general.”

During the King riots, one officer admits an entire precinct agreed to do nothing and let the surrounding neighborhood be burned and looted. The attitude was – screw ‘em.

In the last decade or so the LAPD deliberately hired minorities to police and patrol minority areas. Before, it had been a mostly white male force. A white male force that had been instructed to be aggressive, and to occupy. Now it is black cops in the black neighborhoods. Hispanic cops in the Hispanic areas. Korean cops in Korea Town. The LAPD discovered if it was going to get anywhere, the patrolling officers had to look like and be like the people whose areas they patrol. It gave the LAPD a chance.

“What we are trying to do,” Mendoza says “is solve social problems.”

AN UNEXPECTED CHANGE

Veteran officer John Kim points to his patrol monitor in his car at the start of his shift at 6:30 p.m. “Remember the TV show Adam 12?” he asks me.

For the sake of expediency, sure.

“This is the station it was based on,” and he points to the code on the monitor that reads 1 Adam-12. This station is old, it smells, and feral cats run patrol the mice. This is not a good area of downtown LA.

There is a raw, almost masculine attraction to this job. Everyone here resides in, on, or under the fringe of our society’s periphery. Walking through the basement floor of this precinct, there is an edge to this world most people never experience. A long-haired Hispanic male wears sunglasses as he sits in a holding cell with the door closed. A older tall, thin black male wearing a trench coat with two cops on either side of him is checked in.

One cop tells me to be sure not to turn my back on the detainees when they are brought in. They could spit on me.

There is a tough-guy element here that, for some, is a narcotic.

There is the component of adrenaline to being a cop no amount of exercise could possibly recreate. There is another component to being a cop no amount of training or reading could possibly recreate - this is an exceptionally dangerous profession.

Nonetheless, one of the bigger issues facing the LAPD, or any police force, is the growing number of citizens that simply hate cops. Or firefighters. The type of respect that used to come with these uniforms have often been replaced by anger, mistrust, and aggression. Challenging a police officer is still a dumb decision, but cops feel there are more people who feel either unafraid, or even obligated, to drop the gloves.

The citizens are different. People are aware of their rights, and that life as a cop is not carte blanche.

Cops are different, too. This not a collection of men who earned a high school degree, or returned from active military duty, looking for a job. More cops have college degrees, and are not sticking around. Frutos says for an increasing number of police, the job is not worth it.

Kim is a graduate of UCLA, and he has no intention of leaving a job he has wanted for years. He always wanted this job.

All of this education has made for a wiser, and often calmer, patrolling force but there is a downside. They wise up to their environment quicker, and are looking to leave.

Being a cop is no longer as cool as it was once. The pay has a ceiling. It’s dangerous. People often treat you like trash. Every job has a repetitive feeling, but this pattern can be depressing.

As essential as a police force is to a community, when you are the cop on the beat wearing a bullet proof vest it’s understandable if you want someone else to do it.

DEAL WITH IT

On the eve of the final day of 2014, it is clear the LAPD is not the same force that had one of the worst reputations in America for the better part of a decade. That distinction belongs to other forces for now. Equally clear is that the problems stemming from the incidents in Ferguson, NYC or Cleveland affect this force, and every other cop in every other major American city.

Different departments, different cities but police is police. There is a bond that extends beyond precincts. There is also a mistrust that extends beyond precincts.

There is no recipe to this, but the conscious decision to alter philosophies has at least created a different perception that an entire police force is not comprised of zealots who can’t wait to fight, or draw their Beretta.

It will never be perfect. There will always be bad cops and bad guys that create more sensational headlines than any positive police-led initiative ever could.

This is but one man’s perception of a police department that was once as reviled as any, and painted with the darkest brush. The LAPD did alter its perception and has regained some trust that was broken.

It took years, a lot of quiet days, and the trust is tenuous.

Mac Engel, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @macengelprof And The Big Mac Blog

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