Officers Discuss LAPD Culture and MacArthur Park Incident

LAPD Chief Bill Bratton delivers his first report Tuesday on the May 1st incident in MacArthur Park. He'll make a presentation to the Police Commission on the progress of investigations. Video shows officers clubbing and firing rubber bullets at immigrant rights marchers and journalists. The incident left some wondering whether the LAPD has changed much under federally mandated reforms. KPCC's Frank Stoltze reports.

Frank Stoltze: Earl Paysinger joined the LAPD as a rookie police officer in 1976.

Earl Paysinger: You may consider us back then as a tablespoon of castor oil. We just pinched the public's nose and opened wide its gullet, and we just forced a brand of policing down its throat.

Stoltze: LAPD culture, he says, was "insular," "isolationist," and "harsh." Now, Paysinger is Assistant Chief – number three at the department and in charge of day-to-day operations.

Paysinger: What we've done thus far in terms of recoding and retooling our attitudes and behavior and being much more responsive and willing to listen has really defined the LAPD of today.

[Sound of people screaming, rubber bullets being fired at MacArthur Park]

Stoltze: The May 1st images of some of the LAPD's best trained officers clubbing and firing rubber bullets at immigrant rights marchers and journalists left many observers inside and outside the department wondering how far reform has come.

Charlie Beck: That, of course, is the question of the day.

Stoltze: Assistant Chief Charlie Beck is another 30-year LAPD veteran. He turned around the Rampart Division after investigations found anti-gang officers there regularly beating and framing suspects in the late 1990s.

Beck has supervised crowd control at anti-war demonstrations and Lakers celebrations. He says MacArthur Park indicates more about cops in general than about today's LAPD culture.

Beck: When you make a judgment call and you send your folks out on a mission, you have to be very careful what that mission is because police officers are very goal oriented individuals. They will do what you tell them to do, and my impression is they got the wrong mission that day.

Stoltze: Beck maintains it "made no sense" to clear a large park when a handful of people in one corner were throwing bottles at police. The veteran cop also notes that when bottles started flying, officers at the scene broadcast an "officer needs help call." Few radio calls get your adrenaline flowing faster, says Sgt. Sunil Dutta.

Sunil Dutta: 'Cause there is a code below that and that is "officer needs assistance." And there is a code below that, "hey, I need an additional unit.'" So you're talking about the most distressing thing you hear on the radio. And you rarely hear it.

Stoltze: Dutta is one of the few lower-ranking officers willing to talk to a reporter about MacArthur Park. He's donned riot gear and worked crowd control on a number of occasions.

Dutta: Each skirmish line has a linebacker and also a supervisor, and it's their job to make sure than when the line has to hold, they hold, and if someone, maybe because of tunnel vision, maybe moving out of the line, to pull them back.

Stoltze: One supervisor on May 1st reportedly was new to the job, and many of the officers were recent arrivals to the unit, and lacked training.

Detective Bob Baker heads the union that represents rank and file LAPD officers. Even Baker, whose job is to defend cops, calls the events in MacArthur Park "disturbing." But the 29-year veteran says what happened that day is hardly representative of a new LAPD.

Bob Baker: What we have today is a younger generation which is extremely tolerant, which comes from a lot different diverse backgrounds, which brings just a whole different flavor to the department. And I think sometimes what people really expect are like, robo-cops. Every man and woman that comes on this job comes out of the community. They are going to make mistakes. They are human.

Stoltze: Shortly after the May 1st incident, Police Chief Bill Bratton said "cops go out of control faster than any human being in the world." That comment drew fire from the union. In a videotaped message officers watched at roll call last week, the chief said he hadn't meant to "denigrate" their "professionalism," but to make a point about command and control.

Chief Bill Bratton (in videotaped message to rank and file): I'm a cop. I'm proud to be a cop. I love being a cop. And I love cops. But one of the things I know about cops is you have got to control them.

Stoltze: Bratton has his detractors. A federal judge found his aggressive policing of Skid Row unconstitutional. But even many critics describe him as "reform-minded." That came through in the chief's message to his officers.

Bratton (in videotaped message): Give me a good story to tell, and I will tell it. Give me something else, and unfortunately, I'll have to tell it, like it is.

Stoltze: Whether the rank and file, especially the old timers, embrace this ethos is unclear. At a recent retirement dinner for a legendary detective who'd served on the force 51 years, hundreds of LAPD veterans filled the police academy gymnasium.

[Sound of clapping, hooting, and hollering]

Stoltze: The room suddenly erupted into applause as Former Chief Daryl Gates entered and took a seat at the head table. Gates, who left the department under citizen pressure after the Rodney King beating and the riots 15 years ago, personifies the old LAPD culture.

Daryl Gates: Ya know, I looked at some of those young police officers in MacArthur Park and they were asked to clean out that park. They cleaned it out. And that's all you have to do, is ask them. Or tell them don't do it. But if you tell them to do something, they get it done.

Stoltze: You think they're getting a bad rap on that one?

Gates: I think the police officers got a horrible rap, yes.

Stoltze: As Gates soaked up the adulation that night, Chief Bratton sat quietly alone at the opposite end of the table. In his four and a half years as chief, he's changed more than 80% of the department's command staff. By his own admission, he's still got some work to do.