I have not risen far in the command structure of the Los Angeles Police Department. Now and again I regret this (on pay days, usually), but most often I am comfortable with the decision I made long ago to remain close to the rough and tumble of police work on the street. And sometimes events so arrange themselves as to provide me with even more reason to be content with my place on one of the lower rungs of the chain of command.
When I have finished my duties for the day (or night, as the case may be), I drive home to my family with little thought about what might be happening back at work. And when I return to work, whether it’s the next day or, following a vacation, weeks later, I start with a fresh batch of problems to be coped with over the course of my ten- or twelve-hour day. Having so coped, I go home again with my thoughts on my family rather than my work.
Those whose elevated rank places them behind a desk cannot be so detachedly sanguine. While they may not experience the routine physical dangers street cops do, whether behind their desks or at home or away on vacation they are forever tethered to the BlackBerries they all so ostentatiously carry, the devices that all day, every day, ring, chirp, or vibrate with the latest news from within the LAPD. That news is most often of little import, but once in a great while one of those BlackBerries will ring, chirp, or vibrate with the news that some subordinate has done something illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid, the consequences of which just might be blamed on . . . you.
Witness the case of Captain Joseph Hiltner, a 34-year veteran of the LAPD, who until very recently was the commanding officer of Foothill Division, one of the department’s 21 area stations. Capt. Hiltner today finds himself removed from his command and facing the loss of what is known in the LAPD as an “advanced paygrade.” Within the rank of captain there are three paygrades, and like all station commanding officers Hiltner occupies the highest of them. But not for long, if LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has his way.
Two patrol officers under Capt. Hiltner’s command are experiencing infamy these days, owing to their having roughed up a woman whom they had stopped for talking on her cell phone while driving, an incident that was captured on video by the security camera at a nearby restaurant. Capt. Hiltner is in no way accused of complicity in the rough treatment, nor is he accused of trying to cover it up. Rather, he is accused of a sin nearly as unpardonable: he allowed the chief of police to be embarrassed.
We’ll get to the woman’s arrest in due course, but for now let us examine Capt. Hiltner’s transgression against the good order of the LAPD. Whenever something out of the ordinary happens in the field, whether a personnel complaint, an officer-involved traffic accident, a use of force against an arrestee, or what have you, patrol officers summon a field supervisor to the scene, thus passing to the next level of command the responsibility for investigating the matter and rectifying anything that may have gone awry. If the incident is sufficiently serious, the field supervisor will notify his watch commander, who will in turn document it in his daily report and, if the situation warrants, notify his captain.
Once apprised of an incident, a captain must decide whether it rises to a level requiring notification to his own superiors, i.e. the commander and deputy chief at the bureau level. (The 21 area stations are divided among four geographic bureaus, each under the command of a deputy chief.) The deputy chief then must decide if he should notify the chief of police.
A common complaint in the LAPD is that people in positions of authority cannot or will not make decisions, preferring instead to pass the responsibility up to the next level of command. In a department of 10,000 officers, this can sometimes lead to paralysis, with too many decisions resting in too few hands. The lieutenant or captain who continually passes the buck becomes known as a pest, and worse, as a person who cannot lead. At the lower levels of command, some judgment and restraint must be exercised, some responsibility must be accepted, if the department is to function properly.
But at the same time, any supervisor worthy of the title has to recognize when he has a serious problem on his hands and take steps to correct it, among which is notifying his superiors of what has occurred. And any competent supervisor, on viewing the tape of the incident in question, would know he was looking at a very serious problem indeed. Capt. Hiltner erred on the side of not bothering his boss, a decision that has now cost him dearly.
Chief Charlie Beck, like any police chief, prefers to get his bad news from an internal source rather than from some pesky reporter. When controversy erupts, Beck likes to have his facts at the ready when the inevitable media inquiries begin. He also likes to be able to say that if any corrective action is called for, it has already begun. So when a reporter for L.A.’s KNBC started asking questions about a videotaped arrest in which a woman was slammed to the ground not just once but twice, the second time while in handcuffs, Chief Beck was in the uncomfortable position of having to say, “Huh?”
On August 21, two LAPD officers out of Foothill Division stopped Michelle Jordan, 34, for talking on her cell phone while driving. According to her lawyer, Ms. Jordan admits arguing with the officers and making some “unwise moves,” but did nothing to warrant the severe treatment she received. A witness interviewed by KNBC said the officers were at first justified in arresting Jordan “for resisting,” a judgment not readily supported or refuted by the video as shown on the news report. “But the second part,” says the witness, “was overboard.”
And that characterization is hard to argue with, and indeed appears to be wildly understated. The “second part” was when Jordan, having already been wrestled to the ground and handcuffed, was standing at the rear of the police car. For reasons not the least bit apparent on the videotape, one of the officers, reportedly a 22-year veteran, swings her violently by the arm and slams her to the ground. The second officer, a rookie, merely looks on as though bewildered at what he has just witnessed. Ms. Jordan suffered what must have been painful scrapes and bruising on her face, shoulders, and chest.
As they were required to do, the officers summoned a supervisor to the scene, and in the course of his investigation he discovered that the incident had been recorded by a Del Taco restaurant’s security camera. That supervisor surely notified his watch commander, who I can only suppose notified Capt. Hiltner. (If he hadn’t, that watch commander would today find himself in the soup along with his captain.) And that apparently is where the notifications ceased, leaving Chief Beck fumbling for an answer when the reporter posed questions about the arrest. When made aware of the facts of the case, and after viewing the video, Beck removed the involved officers from field duty and yanked Capt. Hiltner from his command. “The level of force that was used at the end of the incident,” Beck told KNBC reporter Gordon Tokumatsu, “is not justified by what I see in the [arrest] report.”
In a statement posted on the LAPD’s website on Aug. 30, Beck said,
I have serious concerns about this incident and I believe the Commanding Officer of Foothill Area was severely deficient in his response. Proper steps were not taken, including appropriate notifications and the removal of the involved officers from the field. Because of these issues, I have removed him from his command and initiated downgrade procedures. Every Los Angeles Police Officer, regardless of rank, will be held accountable for their actions.
Just so. I don’t know any of the officers involved, but my sympathies are with the rookie, who has been out of the academy only three or four months and as such, was all but powerless to prevent his tenured partner from losing his temper and placing both their jobs in jeopardy. Like most police officers, I can recall being a rookie and working with senior officers whose fuses were shorter than they should have been, and I can recall finishing my shift with some of them and being thankful that they hadn’t done anything that would have had me fired or indicted.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union of which I am a dues-paying member, issued a statement that, while acknowledging that officers must be held accountable for their actions, accused Chief Beck of prejudging the officers and reminding him that they, like anyone accused of a crime, are entitled to a presumption of innocence. Fine. It is the Protective League’s duty to defend its members, and Chief Beck has the duty of seeing to it that his accused officers are treated fairly. He may, in fact, have hindered his case against the officers by signaling that he had come to a conclusion absent the full investigation that has only just begun.
But the chief has the equally if not more compelling duty of maintaining public confidence in his department — a necessity of which is reassuring the public that officers who abuse their authority in so egregious a fashion are not allowed to do it again. There may emerge some evidence that will serve to justify slamming a handcuffed woman face first to the pavement, but no reasonable cop who views that tape can imagine it happening. Let the investigations begin, let the chips fall where they may, and let justice be served.