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In the LAPD, the Cream Rarely Rises to the Top

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.