Los Angeles Police Dogged by Morale, Recruitment Problems

Eric Erickson | July 7, 2008 | 8:19pm EDT
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Los Angeles, Calif. (CNSNews.com) - A growing number of police departments across the country are experiencing morale and recruitment problems, raising questions about the impact of declining police forces in major urban areas.

In New York City, for instance, police officers are leaving the force in record numbers and graduating police recruits are down more than 20 percent.

In the Washington, D.C. suburb of Prince George's County, Maryland, a dispute over pay has resulted in a police "slowdown," and only a dozen people have applied for 50 slots in the county's police academy.

Similar problems exist in Los Angeles, where the police department was once considered a jewel in the crown of the nation's law enforcement divisions. Glorified on radio and television with shows like Dragnet and Adam-12, LAPD officers were seen by many as heroes.

But the media image of the LAPD has been battered in recent years, and the department reflects the challenges of a local police force beset by what some consider sagging morale and retention problems.

New Procedures Bring New Concerns

Over the past 10 years, the department has seen its reputation tarnished after succumbing to scandal and corruption, much of it in visible and violent outbursts that have played out on the evening news here.

Today, it is increasingly difficult for the LAPD to ignore the situation, with its current Police Academy class numbering less than 30 recruits and the next class struggling to match two-thirds of that number.

These numbers are a far cry from the academy classes of 20 years ago, when enrollment hovered around 200 recruits.

Many people within the law enforcement community are pointing fingers squarely at Chief of Police Bernard Parks as the primary problem, and some are calling for his resignation.

"There is no fairness with Chief Parks," says Los Angeles Police Protective League Vice President Bob Baker. "Our kids are more afraid of management than they are of an armed suspect."

The LAPPL is the union for officers serving in the LAPD, representing them in all areas of service including safety and payroll issues.

Chief Parks has come under fire for his disciplinary style, as well as the requirement that every complaint an officer receives goes directly into his personal file and is investigated, regardless of the nature of the complaint.

There have been reported cases such as the woman labeled the "Laser Lady," who complained when officers refused to turn on an invisible shield that she believed was located over her house and was protecting her from ultra violet rays. It was treated the same as any other complaint and went into the involved officer's file.

But the police chief's office doesn't believe the problem is as acute as some officers claim, and Media Officer, Sergeant John Pasquariello, said the complaint system "is not something Chief Parks just dreamt up."

Pasquariello concedes that there appears to be more complaints going into the files of officers, but said it's a function of long-standing policy, not something Parks changed.

"We're not having more complaints, we're documenting more complaints," he said, pointing out that it is department policy since the July 1991 Christopher Commission report, to record every grievance that is filed until it can be proven or dismissed.

The commission, headed by Warren Christopher before his appointment as Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, was formed to investigate the inner workings of the LAPD, including discipline, training and recruitment.

It was unprecedented in its depth of investigation and the findings that unaccountability was running rampant in the LAPD, with numerous officers named as repeat users of excessive force.

But the decade-old practice of more diligent complaint documentation has caused problems for officers who can see promotions delayed while complaints are investigated.

Along with the complaint filing system, officers are required to present business cards that have Internal Affairs contact information printed on the back, a practice which many believe has caused fraudulent and groundless complaints to skyrocket.

"I am tired of denying there is a problem," Baker said, explaining that little has been said of the situation because, he claims, officers who speak out against Parks are censored and reprimanded.

He also said the police chief has cancelled numerous meetings with union officials when the agenda included discussion of departmental and disciplinary problems. "He isn't in touch with the ranks," Baker charged.

While admitting the system installed by the Christopher Commission isn't perfect, Pasquariello said Parks is not ignoring officers or the procedural problems he considers minor. "He is working to tweak it so it isn't so demanding," said Pasquariello. "He certainly cares about his officers."

But the Protective League is not the only critic of Parks. "Parks leads by a dictatorship," said a tenured officer in the city's Rampart Division, which was formed to battle illegal gang activity in the city.

"Morale is low," said the officer, who requested anonymity. "The current system has ruined some careers," and he claimed other officers feared losing their jobs.

While new recruits are in short supply, the LAPD is also facing a rise in the number of officers who are leaving the ranks. In previous years, an average of 350 left the force annually. By the end of the first half of 2001, more than 200 officers had left the force.

The Rampart officer claimed the disciplinary system enacted by Parks is the main reason officers are leaving, along with the current pay and work schedule, and a retirement program many officers feel is unacceptable. "In order to get 90 percent of your salary, you have to serve 33 years on the force," he said.

These factors, he said, serve as a barometer of the climate within the LAPD. The officer said he understands why people are reluctant to choose a career on the force and become engulfed in the scandal, and he blames Parks.

"If you polled lieutenants and below, I think 85 to 90 percent of them would want [Parks] gone," the officer stated, saying he believes recently elected Mayor James Hahn, will help remove Parks. "Hahn knows what's going on."

A Decade of Decline and Changes

The LAPD's problems began in the 1990s, with the Rodney King beating, the acquittal of the involved officers and the subsequent riots, events that preceded the downfall of longtime Chief of Police Daryl Gates.

Accused of being out of touch with the public he served, Gates was replaced in 1992 by Willie Williams, who served 14 years as the city's highest-ranking police officer.

But Williams served only 5 years in the post, having inherited the department's eroding public image and internal problems that later came to light. It is believed by some within the department that the well-liked Williams was forced out by city politics.

Bayan Lewis was named interim chief following the departure of Williams, and served three months until the appointment of Parks was announced.

Since Parks' five year contracted term began in 1997, the LAPD has seen the explosion of the Rampart scandal, which linked the department to charges of drug theft, bank robbery, and officer misconduct, including the shooting of unarmed suspects and drinking on the job.

The entire department has seen a number of shootings of unarmed civilians, including an actor who was killed when he was shot in the back at a Halloween party and a homeless woman who was gunned down while reaching for a screwdriver.

As the LAPD struggles with scandal, it is also working to beef up the force.

According to Mayor Hahn's office, the department is budgeted for 10,054 officers, yet no one seems to know exactly how many officers are patrolling Los Angeles' streets.

LAPD Media Officer Horace Frank believes the force is about 900 officers short and insists that everything within their power is being done to recruit as many new candidates as soon as possible. "The key is to get to our authorized strength of 10,000," Frank said.

But the Protective League's Baker disagrees. "These guys are in denial," he said, explaining that by the union's count, the LAPD is well under 9,000 officers.

In order to address the understaffing, the LAPD has asked retired officers to come back and serve for one year in administrative positions while continuing to receive their pensions.

"It's a short-term solution for a long-term problem," said Baker, explaining that this could also lead to legal problems if the retirees are somehow injured in the line of duty.

Amid the accusations leveled at Parks, Pasquariello said he believes some on the force are deliberately trying to malign the chief with false recruitment numbers and what he considers to be an unfair representation of Parks.

"In any leadership role, you're not going to have everyone like you," he said in defense of Parks.

While the data show increases in the number of Los Angles police leaving the force, and a decline in new recruits, the results of this imbalance are less clear.

When asked for comment on the police shortage, officials of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, a group that helps arrange community councils to combat crime and other urban problems, claimed the situation wasn't within their jurisdiction and directed questions to Mayor Hahn.

The Mayor's office did not comment on the declining number of police, or the question of Chief Parks' future. Similarly, the Community Coalition, which acts to influence public policy on behalf of Los Angeles citizens, did not return calls seeking comment.

Parks has until February to decide whether he will serve another 5-year term as chief, and he has said little to reveal his plans. When asked on a local talk show if he would seek a renewed contract, he said, "I'll let you know after I have a talk with my psychiatrist."

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