Morale is falling under Chief Bratton, and that's dangerous, says a police officer
By JACK DUNPHY The Los Angeles Times
JACK DUNPHY is the pseudonym of a Los Angeles police officer who writes a column for National Review Online.
ON THE FIFTH floor of Parker Center, wedged in among the cubicles in the personnel records section, sit two laundry carts like those you might find in the basement of a large hotel.
These carts can be viewed as a barometer of the Los Angeles Police Department's current health because they contain the city-issued equipment turned in by officers who retire or resign from the department. On the day I was there not long ago, the carts were filled to overflowing with leather gun belts, ballistic vests, Kevlar helmets and all the other gear and tackle an officer wears or carries throughout his career.
A police officer attends to this equipment, cataloging each item as it's handed in, and I asked him how long it takes to fill up the carts. "That's just from this week," he said. "We get one or two a day coming in here to quit."
Even as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton trumpet their plan to add 1,000 officers to the LAPD in the coming years, they neglect their obligation to retain the ones they already have. As of April 30, 136 officers had retired from the department this year, according to the Police Protective League. Even more troubling, another 136 have resigned, simply walking away from the job before they were eligible for a pension. Not only does this substantially exceed the expected attrition rate, but many of these officers have left for jobs in other police departments. Why?
In most cases, it isn't the money. Though some suburban agencies are more generous than the LAPD, few of these officers would tell you that they were lured away by the promise of a bigger paycheck. For most, it's simply a desire to be treated fairly while doing a thankless, dirty and dangerous job. In this regard, Bratton has failed to live up to the promise of his first year in L.A.
When Bratton was sworn in as chief in 2002, he inherited a department that had been thoroughly demoralized under his predecessor, Bernard C. Parks. Parks had imposed an absurd disciplinary system that required a full-scale investigation of every personnel complaint, no matter how petty or transparently false.
Officer morale plummeted, and cops began fleeing the department far more quickly than replacements could be hired and trained. Untold thousands of hours were wasted on these complaints even as hundreds of murders went unsolved. Cops were discouraged from doing their jobs, and the city's crime victims paid the price.
Things began to improve virtually from the day Bratton arrived. In his April 2003 message to the department, he acknowledged the excesses of Parks' complaint system and promised improvements. "The past history of a flawed disciplinary system," he wrote, "will not keep officers from doing the job they signed up to do."
We could not have been more relieved. We went to work bringing about the drop in crime that continues to this day: Homicides went from 647 in 2002 to 487 last year, and other categories saw similar reductions.
But our optimism is now largely forgotten. Bratton has abandoned the flinty resolve that marked his tenure as commissioner of the New York Police Department and his first year with the LAPD. Instead, he's showing a previously unseen willingness to sacrifice officers involved in controversial incidents in order to appease fractious political interests, like the demagogues in the "No Justice, No Peace" crowd.
Though crime continues to fall in most areas of Los Angeles, seven of the city's 19 patrol divisions have seen increases in violent crime this year. The change has been gradual, but LAPD officers are once again showing a reluctance to do their jobs, and this can only embolden those individuals eager to take advantage of any perceived police retreat. This reluctance stems not from any fear of police work's inherent physical dangers, which most cops readily accept, but rather from fear of placing their livelihoods in jeopardy should politicians or commanding officers disapprove of their actions during some violent and unpredictable encounter.
On the night of June 3, for instance, Officer Kristina Ripatti was shot and paralyzed by a career criminal who had robbed a South L.A. gas station moments earlier. Ripatti's partner then shot and killed the attacker. It was the 11th time LAPD officers had come under fire this year.
Police Commission President John Mack was characteristically obtuse. "Typically, this commission, the department and the public focus quite a bit of attention on the issue of violence," he said. "Often, the focus is on violence in use-of-force incidents by officers … but we don't focus much on violence against police officers, and we have a very, very serious, tragic incident here."
The hypocrisy is stunning yet unsurprising. If Ripatti or her partner had somehow managed to shoot first, how long would it have taken Mack and others to find fault with them? Not long.
There always has been a chasm between the LAPD's management and the cops on the street, but I see this chasm today as wider and more unbridgeable than at any other time in my more than 20 years with the department.
Every day, cops attend their roll calls and are told to go out and deter crime. They know this means seeking out and confronting the city's criminals. But they also know that if a confrontation diverges in any way from the way things are taught in the police academy, they may be admonished, suspended or, if the incident arouses sufficient political heat, fired and prosecuted.
What these officers understand, and what most of their commanding officers do not, is that things never go as they're taught in the police academy. Today, arrests that in years past would have earned an officer a commendation are instead resulting in punishment when captains, commanders and deputy chiefs, few of whom have any meaningful street experience, decide that an officer's tactics strayed from what is depicted in the training videos.
When I was a young cop, a mentor of mine, now long retired, explained to me that most of the people who rise to the upper ranks in the LAPD don't understand how police work is really done. What's worse, they are either intimidated by or contemptuous of those who do. This might be hard for people outside police work to grasp, but it is even more true today than it was then.
Examples abound, but an incident in South L.A.'s 77th Street Division illustrates the point. Two patrol officers were flagged down by the victim of a robbery on Feb. 17, 2005. The armed suspect had just fled in the victim's car, and the officers gave chase. The suspect crashed and flipped the car but still managed to flee on foot. He was soon cornered but, rather than give up, he reached for his waistband, prompting one officer to strike him in the head with his gun.
Though this officer probably would have been justified in shooting the man, he chose a less lethal method to bring the chase to an end. The suspect was later convicted of numerous crimes — among the charges against him were robbery, carjacking, carrying a concealed firearm and possession of cocaine — and sentenced to 13 years.The officer's reward? A 10-day suspension handed down last month for his perceived departures from officially endorsed procedures. He was cited for striking the suspect with his gun, for using inappropriate language during the chase and for failing to request backup.
Ask yourself: If you were that officer, the next time you were flagged down by a crime victim, would you give chase and run the risk of a similar outcome, to say nothing of the risk to your own life, or would you choose to take a crime report and watch the suspect escape?
Today, more and more officers are choosing the safer option, or they are leaving the LAPD altogether. And, once again, it is the city's crime victims who are paying the price.