I’m watching a horrible fire approach Avalon on Catalina Island. Just a few mornings ago I was admiring the amazing view we had of Avalon — it was such a clear morning that we could see the Casino and the condos of Hamilton Cove with our unaided eye, and it was even better through our small telescope. Now it’s so dark — except for the orange flames licking the island’s side — that I can’t see how close it is to Avalon. But reports indicate that the town is being evacuated and that the flames are very close.
[Editor’s Note: the following is a piece by Robert C.J. Parry, a freelance writer and a keen observer of local politics and culture. It is the result of months of work chasing down an interesting and important story about the Los Angeles Police Department. All credit for this piece goes to Mr. Parry. — Patterico]
By Robert C. J. Parry
Despite the tenor of news reports surrounding last week’s violence in MacArthur Park, many officers in the Los Angeles Police Department are valorous and dedicated. In fact, this morning, 17 current police officers will receive the LAPD Medal of Valor. Notably, three of them now serve in other communities.
In fact, according to the L.A. Police Protective League, fully 60% of LAPD officers have been with the department less than five years. At that rate, almost the entire department could have been replaced twice since the 1992 riots. Notably, officers who leave the LAPD in their first five years have to repay the City for their academy training.
If you want to understand why the LAPD can’t retain officers, don’t look to the Los Angeles Times. The story below was first told to five of their top staff writers. Each deemed it interesting, but none reported it. In fact, this very column was presented to their OpEd section, and was rejected because a vaguely similar piece ran last year, addressing a less compelling set of facts. Apparently, only limited space is allotted to critical local issues in Los Angeles’s newspaper of record.
So, instead of looking to the Times, look to two other certified heroes: officers Troy Zeeman and Bryan Gregson. Last November, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger presented them with California Medals of Valor, for engaging a suspected killer in a running gunfight through a South L.A. apartment building.
The LAPD, by contrast, ruled them tactically deficient, worthy only of retraining.
If that’s confusing to you, it wasn’t to Zeeman and Gregson. They’d both spent a decade in the LAPD hall of mirrors.
But to get the details, you’d have to drive to Newport Beach. That’s where both cops moved months after the shooting.
The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners’ (BOPC) official account of the 2005 shooting (available at LAPD Online) provides no reason to consider them anything but courageous. On February 17 of that year, while on patrol in the violent Harbor Gateway area, they spotted gang member Frank Garcia. They knew the 22-year-old Garcia was suspected of having killed a woman with a stray bullet in a late 2003 drive-by shooting. In November of 2004 they arrested him following an extensive search with helicopters and K-9s. He was released when no citizens would testify, Zeeman explained.
Three months later, two hours into a Thursday afternoon shift, they spotted Garcia and other gangsters outside apartments at 227th Street and Harvard Boulevard. He drew their attention by suspiciously hiding behind bushes. They pulled over, he ran — trespassing through the apartments — and the chase was on.
Since Garcia had a head-start, Gregson ran to the back of the complex while Zeeman chased Garcia into an alcove. Suddenly Garcia shouted, “you’re dead,” and fired a shot around a corner. Miraculously, it missed. Zeeman fired back, and chased Garcia west toward Gregson, who shot and captured the gang member.
As LAPD’s official reviewers of lethal force incidents, the members of the BOPC (most of whom have never carried a gun) nit-picked Zeeman and Gregson’s actions — literally step by step.
They complained the officers didn’t “make a plan” — as if Garcia had stood awaiting permission to run. They opined as to what should have been broadcast mid-stride over their radios –- berating Gregson for saying 228th Street instead of 227th –- and said that they “would have preferred” that Zeeman had ended the pursuit when Gregson separated. They even complained that Zeeman wasn’t broadcasting while shooting. “I dropped my radio when I ducked,” he explained.
Despite their penchant for second-guessing the officers, the members of the BOPC did not say what they themselves would have done. But “cower in fear” was not an option for Zeeman and Gregson.
Both cops were ordered to undergo formal re-training at the police academy. They complied — and left for Newport Beach within weeks.
Ignoring the nitpicking, Gov. Schwarzenegger presented their medals well after the BOPC’s ruling. The shameless LAPD touted their achievement in press releases and other announcements that often failed to mention that neither man continued to hold an LAPD badge. Ironically, the same LAPD brass who attended the ceremony declined to give them department awards because of the BOPC’s ruling.
Monday morning quarterbacking is only half of the story. Not discussed in reports or press releases were the things that truly drove them to leave the streets of South L.A. to gangsters like Frank Garcia.
The sergeant who arrived at the scene had questioned them about the incident and separated them per the consent decree standard. But, he never inquired as to their welfare –- an inquiry that the consent decree doesn’t require. Locked in rooms at Harbor Station, they were treated as suspects in a grueling 14-hour interrogation. Had the location been Guantanamo Bay, civil libertarians would fume.
Zeeman describes being treated this way as “accepted,” much like he accepted that he would risk his life every day as a cop. What was not accepted was the second-guessing and stress from the politically-driven BOPC.
“I was confident that Gregson and I did what the public would expect — take a violent gang member off the street, even if it meant putting our lives and family in danger,” Zeeman said. But, he added,
I doubted the LAPD, the city officials and the public would deem (it) “good.” Instead, I felt they would not take into consideration the dangers and the decision to put our lives on the line.
While their supervisors offered support, Zeeman says, they too were driven by the requirements of the federal consent decree that governs almost everything LAPD cops do. It created a constant feeling that doing good, aggressive, honest police work is the slowest way to climb the LAPD ladder.
“Being proactive is a liability for the City,” said Zeeman. “The LAPD, the city officials and the public don’t want ‘good’ cops to do their jobs.”
Being proactive, he said, “is career suicide.”
At the time of the shooting, Zeeman was on the LAPD’s High Risk Management List, a watch list of potentially problem officers. “If you do good, aggressive police work, you get on the list,” he says. Though he had one previous shooting and had engaged in 10 years of violent altercations with resisting suspects, he’d never had any citizen complaint sustained for any reason.
Still, he’d been on the list for most of his career. As the department became driven more by politics and the consent decree than by common sense, disciplinary procedures became more onerous — and simultaneously more meaningless. The department now investigates every single complaint, regardless of plausibility. In one incident, repeated by many cops, an officer was questioned for allegedly “stealing a woman’s ovaries.” A 28-year-old officer was investigated for “raping a woman every day for 55 years.”
It would be a joke, except for this: when a complaint is filed, an officer’s career goes on hold. “Most complaints take a year for the department to investigate,” Zeeman says. “While it’s open, you can’t promote or transfer.” So, gangsters’ lies and psychotics’ delusions limit career prospects for certified heroes like Troy Zeeman.
But the part of the system that finally made Zeeman move on was the most humiliating. Although the department never sustained any complaints against him, it also failed to clear some of them. “My complaints were mostly for using ‘discourteous language,’ and most were ruled ‘unresolved,’ meaning the department couldn’t decide between believing me or a felon.”
It was one insult too many from a city whose gangsters had twice tried to kill him. So, both cops abandoned their half-vested pensions and found a community that embraces a partnership with its cops: Newport Beach.
In L.A., the complaints and second-guessing create a paranoid ambiance that causes officers to prioritize political perceptions over capturing criminals — and even their own safety. “I know a lot of cops who don’t carry batons,” said a South L.A. gang investigator who refused to be identified in print, fearing LAPD retribution. “They’d rather watch a crook run away than risk a fight,” he explained. “Gangsters ask me why I don’t carry one and I say ‘I’m not gonna end up on YouTube. If you want to fight me, we’ll do it with fists.’”
Though he attended the Police Commission’s re-training as ordered, Zeeman said most cops don’t take the Commission very seriously. He said: “their motivation for any decision is ‘job security.'” Yet that “security” comes from a mayor who is driven purely by political winds.
So, in their quest to hunt down even the slightest defect in LAPD officers, the members of the Commission have marginalized its influence.
As Zeeman prepared to leave LAPD, his commanding officer pleaded with him to stay, saying she wished she could pay him better. But nothing could possibly convince him to stay. “No amount of money … would have kept me working in that environment,” he said.
To the media, the LAPD story is about “secretive” personnel hearings and the virtues of the consent decree. One reporter who ignored this story said to me: “cops leave the LAPD all the time, what’s the big deal?” Apparently, a story about certified heroes fleeing the police department does not fit the agenda of the newspaper of record in America’s second largest city.
Like many reporters, that gentleman regularly seeks analysis from police critics like civil rights attorney Connie Rice. Quoted by the Times in 10 stories in as many months, despite having never worked the street, she is deemed credible because she issued “Rampart Reconsidered,” a report criticizing the department’s “warrior culture.”
On page 47 of that report, which was issued days after Officer Kristina Ripatti was shot and paralyzed, Rice blamed this “warrior culture” on “the myth and lore of urban policing.” Notably, not one interview since has questioned whether Rice considers Ripatti’s experience to be “lore,” merely a “myth” — or perhaps a case history from which officers should learn.
While The Times seeks critics to parse police actions, it ignores those critics’ ethical lapses. BOPC President John Mack publicly condemned the LAPD shooting of Devin Brown weeks before he was appointed to the Police Commission. But, in a glaring conflict of interest, he later voted on the BOPC’s ruling about the incident. Yet The Times ignored this obvious conflict of interest — and even quoted his statements on the case without caveat.
So, five valorous cops — Zeeman, Gregson, and three who will be decorated today — move to other agencies. Yet the political and media focus simply magnifies the factors that drive cops like these out of the Los Angeles Police Department. The results are not hard to gauge.
Weeks after Zeeman and Gregson were decorated, 14-year-old Cheryl Green was murdered — a mere 20 blocks from the site of the Frank Garcia chase. In reaction, Mayor Villaraigosa launched a highly publicized gang crackdown with full media fanfare. Mayor Villaraigosa may have political savvy, but his city is missing something far more important: two courageous and experienced cops who know Cheryl Green’s neighborhood better than the mayor ever will — and who know gangs better than the newly-hired 60% of the department.
There is an ironic post-script to this story. Three blocks from the scene of the Garcia shooting, two other LAPD officers shot a gang member during a running gun battle in an apartment complex.
One must wonder if they will receive medals from the LAPD, or new badges from Newport Beach.
But, if you want to know, the last place to look is the L.A. Times.
[E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org]