In the LAPD, the Cream Rarely Rises to the Top

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.