In the LAPD, the Cream Rarely Rises to the Top
To Deflect and to Swerve: Inside the not-so-elite ranks of the LAPD's Officers Club.
April 30, 2011 - 12:06 am
The next time you watch a movie or television show about the Los Angeles Police Department in which the key figure in an investigation, the real brains of the operation, is depicted as a captain, you’ll know the writer didn’t bother to learn much about the LAPD.
I occasionally receive email from exasperated colleagues in the LAPD. “Dear Jack,” they write, “my commanding officer is . . .” And there then follows one or more descriptive terms from a list that includes the following: a drunk, a philanderer, an egomaniac, a moron, a lunatic.
What suddenly strikes me as I compose this column is that some substantial number of LAPD officers, perhaps even a majority, will read the above and be certain that I am talking about their own commanding officer. And, just as striking, not a single one of the commanding officers who reads it will entertain even a suspicion that I might be talking about him. Self-delusion: it’s not something that’s taught to the LAPD command staff, it just seems to come naturally to most of them.
I am now in the twilight of my police career, having been around longer than only a few dozen of my fellow officers. For reasons I will explain below, I have not risen far in the organization, and from my vantage point near the bottom of the chain of command I have watched as some of my contemporaries and some of those who followed me rose through the ranks to become captains, commanders, and deputy chiefs. I recall with some embarrassment the naïveté I displayed when, as a young cop back in the early ‘80s, I assumed — as you may also — that one had to be possessed of above average intelligence and keen law enforcement skills to ascend to the lofty levels of the department. It didn’t take long before I was disabused of this notion.
I spoke with a colleague not long ago, a man I had worked with in an earlier assignment and whom I knew to be an outstanding police officer and a first-rate field supervisor. He had taken the lieutenant’s exam, and I asked him how he had fared when the final list for promotion was published. “Not well,” he said. “I probably won’t make it on this list.” When I asked him where he thought he had stumbled in the process, he just shrugged and said, “I guess I’m not in the Club.”
“Ah yes,” I said, “the Club.” Within the LAPD, the Club is the informal society to which anyone aspiring to rise into the department’s command ranks must belong. There is no roster of the Club’s members, there is no clubhouse or headquarters, and as far as I know the members do not greet each other with some secret handshake. But, as in any exclusive club, each member knows all of the others, and they take great pains to limit the membership to those who share their views and experiences. Only rarely does some interloper manage to sneak through the various levels of scrutiny to the point that he can join the Club and cause trouble.
If you were to draw a Venn diagram of the Los Angeles Police Department, with a large circle representing the entire department and smaller ones depicting the various entities within, you would see the following: If one of the smaller circles represents the brightest and most capable police officers, detectives, and field supervisors, and another, larger, circle represents the administrative bureaucracy, the members of which in their daily duties have only tangential connection to real police work, you would see that the circles barely, almost imperceptibly intersect. And if another small circle represents the command staff, i.e. the Club, you would see that it broadly intersects with the bureaucrats while barely touching the one containing the best cops.
How can this be, you ask. Doesn’t the cream rise to the top?
No, it doesn’t. Not usually, anyway.
Like most organizations, perhaps like your own workplace, the LAPD is governed by the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the work is performed by 20 percent of the personnel. With only the rarest exception, it is from the other 80 percent that the command officers are produced. The reason for this is simple. The police officers in that 20 percent, the best the department has to offer, enjoy doing police work and prefer to continue doing it for the duration of their careers. And the farther one rises in the command structure, the more removed one becomes from actual police work. Of that hard-working 20 percent, only a very few advance beyond the rank of lieutenant, for it is above that rank that the “climber” completes his inexorable transition from cop to that lowliest species of police fauna, house-mouse. But for the uniform, badge, and gun, he becomes indistinguishable from any other office-bound bureaucrat.
When they graduate from the police academy and have worked the streets for some time, members of the Club learn that they are not and will never be part of that 20 percent, for they simply lack the skills that mark the best police officers. What they find they are skilled at, however, is learning the esoterica of the police bureaucracy and taking tests by which such knowledge is measured. And in the Los Angeles Police Department, the term “esoterica” is stretched to almost unfathomable lengths. For example, there once appeared on an LAPD promotional exam a question about how long the lights should be allowed to be kept on in an unoccupied room. (Yes, there is a section in the LAPD manual that governs such things.) You wouldn’t want to work for the person who got that question right.
Problems inevitably arise when commanding officer positions are filled with people who know everything about when to turn the lights off but very little about how to arrest and prosecute a lawbreaker. The LAPD is broken up into 21 patrol areas and several specialized divisions. Each patrol area has two captains, the area commanding officer and the patrol captain. The specialized divisions each have a single commanding officer. If an area C.O. is one of the truly talented captains on the department, chances are the patrol captain of that division is somehow deficient. The problem is that there aren’t enough outstanding captains to balance out all of the deficient ones, with the sad consequence that some areas are burdened with two lackluster people running the show.
Such an arrangement might not result in disaster if the area’s lieutenants, sergeants, and senior detectives are squared away. But if two ineffectual captains are left in place for too long, their most talented subordinates seek transfers to more desirable assignments. And when all the good mid-level supervisors have gone, the cops on the street, even the 20-percenters, take it in the neck and start begging for transfers too. So what ends up happening is that the weakest captains get shuffled around quite a bit, seldom remaining in one place long enough to cause lasting damage to morale.
Another way the LAPD tries to minimize the impact of incompetent leadership is by placing some of the weakest captains in specialized divisions, where lieutenants and senior detectives in effect run the operation while doing their best to ignore the current drunk, philanderer, egomaniac, moron, or lunatic who happens to occupy the C.O.’s office. The lower-ranking personnel at these divisions, many of whom have devoted years and years to their specialization, are more inclined to suffer fools gladly (or at least silently), so they are less likely to bring about the disruptions that accompany mass requests for transfers. You can hear these people muttering to themselves in the hallways: “This too shall pass.”
Many years ago I was offered an opportunity to join the Club, the acceptance of which would have required me to work in some dank cubicle on the 6th floor of Parker Center, the old LAPD headquarters building, where I would have daily contact with all the departments mucky-mucks. Had I accepted the offer I might be a mucky-muck myself today, a captain or even higher, but I turned it down. I have no regrets. I liked being a cop, and I still do.