A Rough Arrest in Los Angeles

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.