Photo: Kelly Bracken
Anyone who has ever read her fair share of cop novels or seen his allocation of police procedurals knows the type: The old-timer who hung up his badge and gun is sought out for some manner of counsel by the story's protagonist. At some point, this oracle will indulge the melancholic observation, "Man, I wish I was still there." That's fiction for ya.
Not that it wouldn't be nice if every man or woman who'd done time in the streets proved so wistful. For my part, I am surprised at how little I miss the job. Indeed, if I find anything sad about the situation, it's in *not* regretting my separation from a department that I had lived with for 25 years. Hell, I didn't even angle for weekend visitation rights as a reserve. The alimony's not bad, though.
But then that department is but a shadow of what it once was. Oh sure, it's physically bigger now, with more sworn and non-sworn personnel than in years past, a new fleet of cars, and a polished sheen to many of its retrofitted and refurbished satellites (I can hardly wait for the unveiling of the Hall of Justice's makeover).
However, can the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department assert itself as one of the best and most innovative departments in the country? Can it say that it serves its communities as vigilantly and as well as other law enforcement agencies? Can it say that it still enjoys the reputation in the profession that it once did?
I don't know that it can; certainly such prospects strike me as counter-intuitive.
Saddled with a mass exodus of retirees and a corresponding loss of expertise, the department routinely faces a commensurate diminution of funds (and make no mistake, the two realities are interrelated). It is conceivable that it might be better situated with taxpayers dollars if said monies weren't routinely getting siphoned off by litigation for which the department is found responsible (losses in civil cases are projected to be $50 million this year alone). With 18 deputies having recently been indicted, more possibly still to come, and those whose tits are not otherwise in the wringer having had to work "in lieu" days leading into 2014, the department is beleagured on multiple fronts.
But while the department may be down, it is hardly out.
It remains the largest sheriff's department in the world, providing contracted services to 42 of the county's 88 municipalities and with 9,100 deputies to do it. And there are still plenty who desire to perform their jobs and possess the capacity to do it, too. Here is where the department stands to re-establish itself: By letting them do it.
In my last blog I observed a former employee's anniversary with the Sheriff's Department, and noted that I'd wish him many more if I thought it'd truly be in his best interests.
To that end, here are some thoughts—part shopping list, part laundry list—that I would like to share with the new sheriff in town.
When it comes to hiring, sheriff, it's fine that friends and relatives of current employees be considered for the profession. But unless your name is Nostradamus, the calling of background investigators to let them know in no uncertain terms that a particular candidate is going to be hired seems…distasteful. Besides, isn't this the kind of cronyism that helped get the department in its current mess?
How's this for a novel experiment: Level the playing field and let the chips fall where they may when it comes to hiring and promotions. Hire the best and the brightest.
Just the other day I spoke with a retired NYPD officer and he touched on how bad things can get in the absence of well-established standards, making the comment that while he was of Puerto Rican descent, he believed that the worst thing that NYPD ever did was lower the bar as a perceived conceit to hiring minorities.
"'Have a pulse?'" he said, mimicking the prevailing attitude. "C'mon in—you're just what we're looking for. Didn't matter what race you were, they wanted you. Unfortunately, they tended to overlook things like character and morals. Instead of raising the bar for applicants, they lowered it"
I'd like to say things are demonstrably different here on the West Coast, but I can't (Rafael Perez, anyone?). So how about establishing some standards and maintaining them? Certainly, it would go a long way to prevent needless acts of idiocy by the needlessly hired.
And while you're in full-blown reformer mode, it might be a good idea to eliminate all the artificial springboards and barriers relating to promotions, too. When I suggested putting LASD's "appraisal of promotability" (that portion of the promotional process designed to favor the department's ass-kissers) out to pasture, your predecessor suggested instead that folks like me "get out and network more"—to basically resort to templated leg-humping.
Disgusted, I simply washed my hands of the affair. But lest this sound like a victim impact statement to my career, let me point out there remain in the LASD deputies who are routinely tasked with acting as watch sergeants and watch commanders throughout the county without the stripes or the pay (for all I know, what with the budget cuts, the problem may even be worse now). As these "old reliables" are implicitly deemed trustworthy of assuming positions that tacitly carry the most risk, don't their afterhours performances as the front lines in station operations and risk mitigation deem them more deserving of formal appointment to said ranks? Are they really to be denied promotions because they weren't your predecessor's driver and weren't scratch golfers?
And guess what? Promoting the best and the brightest will have many an ancillary benefit, including a diminished frequency of getting your ass sued. It will enhance the department's image and render it more attractive to desirable applicants. It will avail you a pool of people to draw upon that will constitute a trustworthy inner circle. True, they may not know their roles from the get-go, but you will know yours. It is therefore incumbent upon you to encourage an atmosphere of candor without fear of reprisal among your subordinants. If history proves anything it is that the insulating nature of buffers erodes with time: Sooner or later, you will be held accountable and pleas of convenient ignorance will not appease your detractors. It didn't work for Block or Baca, and it won't work for you.
There are other things that you can do to make the department attractive as possible. How? By re-establishing the "rubber-meets-the-road" brand of law enforcement. For decades you've had one of the best law enforcement media units in the country (doubtlessly an agreeable asset to being geographically situated near the entertainment industry's epicenter). Edify your constituency via podcasts and online videos. Dispense with abstractions like insipid—not to mention hypocritical—mission statements and make compensatory efforts at remediating your constituency of the laws so that next time they clamor "I know my rights" they actually will.
And don't forget that you not only serve those constituents, but your employees, too. Use your brain trust to lobby on behalf of them. Do everything you can to prevent outside interests from eviscerating benefits programs (and don't underestimate their power to recruit and retain employees. I cannot overstate the extent to which medical benefits served as an inducement for deputies to finish out 25 years—and this was well before the Obama fiasco).
Invest in operating infrastructure. Be shameless in hitting up the private sector for donations. Lobby hard for the moneys you need, and keep track of what you've been denied. When your DNA backlog gets too backed up and cases get dropped for lack of funding and victims suffer further insult to injury, then the buck will rest with the County Board of Supervisors (who refused to give you it in the first place). When it comes to today's constraints, there is no shame in begging if it can save lives and grief. Besides, what you don't pay on the front end you will pay for on the backend—and exponentially more for it.
And don't just fixate on your sworn personnel. Reward those who come through, whatever their capacity. Many a complaint has been avoided and a lawsuit possibly averted thanks to some timely counsel by a station operator or some other non-sworn employee who was in the right place at the right time and nobody knew about it. But if you expose yourself to them and see how they conduct themselves routinely, you might be surprised (not that the surprise will always be pleasant, but rest assured it will probably be needed).
For all the talk about cultural sensitivity, perhaps it's better to be culturally aware. Know that the news media will never be your friend. Nor will those self-interested racial and religious enclaves that are always trying to wedge out their own piece of the pie. Just fixate on what you have to do and do it.
And that includes a correlating expectation of homogeneity within the ranks. While I advocate mutual tolerance and respect, I can't help but believe that a degree of conformity—at least visible conformity—is expected of the profession's uniformed employees. I don't want to see deputies wearing turbans or burqas or sleeved forearms showing up at my door in uniform. And one needn't be xenophobic to have an expectation that the law-enforcement representative that one finds themselves dealing with will mirror his or hers expectations to some degree. Herein is where the notion of assimilation is rewarded with reciprocal acceptance. We're in America and while Coke may want "America the Beautiful" spoken in tongues, I want something that reflects the culture that we are theoretically trying to protect—and our sartorial appearance goes a long way to rendering things less foreign
You are coming in without the baggage. Will you be at the greater mercy of others than your predecessors? Abso-f__ing-lutely. All the more reason to accomplish as much of a constructive nature as you can in the time available you.
Might you be a one-and-done sheriff? Sadly, yes. But you might also prove yourself one of the most valuable the department has ever had—hell, that this country has ever had.
Certainly, you'll have taken that coveted path of Robert Frost—and how preferable is that to the legacies of Baca and Block.
And now a sidenote to the line personnel: I would suggest giving the new guy or gal the benefit of the doubt. Whatever their history, they may surprise you. I have been bitterly disappointed by those for whom I had the greatest optimism, and pleasantly surprised by those I'd previously held in contempt. For better or worse, people change. Evaluate accordingly.
Hopefully, he'll abstain from the "I'll sick my IRS dogs on your ass" antics of Obama, the "I'll get you and your little dog, Toto, too" hijinx of Eric Holder, and the "I'll revoke your firearm permit" of his predecessor, Lee Baca.
Finally, regardless of whether you are the sheriff or an employee, have some balls. Speak up and keep speaking up until you get tired of speaking up. Eventually, someone will hear. Someone will act. Seriously. I haven't said a damn thing herein that hasn't been said elsewhere, been bitched about previously, and been ignored by the powers that be. But that hardly invalidates them, the forthcoming chastisements of outraged academics not withstanding.
Rereading my words, the worst I can accuse myself of is a melding of treachant idealism and a well-developed amygdala. Nestled right up against the latter in the back of my mind is the nagging worry that LASD's back is pressed just a little too tightly against the wall and that the damage done to it is irreparable.
Perhaps, it is.
But on the cusp of a re-building era, I wouldn't bet on it.