Some years ago, on a warm afternoon in South-Central Los Angeles, I responded to the scene of a drive-by shooting in which a man had been killed. Such crimes were — and remain today — sadly common in that part of town, so much so that my coworkers and I were well-practiced in the routine of preserving evidence, identifying witnesses, and all the other chores uniformed officers are expected to perform while waiting for homicide detectives to arrive. We had completed those chores and transitioned into the standing-around phase when our watch commander arrived at the scene.
He was a newly minted lieutenant, fresh from a long stretch behind a desk at Internal Affairs, and our initial impression of him was that he was ill-prepared for the position he now occupied. That impression was reinforced when he arrived at the crime scene bearing a notebook, inside of which he had assembled a series of checklists, one for each of the various types of incidents likely to launch him from his desk at the station and out onto the street. That a man in his position needed these checklists at all was bad enough; worse was his apparent lack of embarrassment in so clearly demonstrating to his new subordinates his lack of experience in handling such rudimentary aspects of police work. Worse still was his failure to recognize, as he ticked off the items on his murder-scene checklist to a ticked-off veteran sergeant, that all of the steps his checklist told him to see instituted had already been completed before he arrived.
Despite our new boss’s inauspicious debut, we were willing to cut the man some slack. It often takes some time for people who have been out of the field for an extended period to get acclimated to the pace and demands of working as a watch commander in a busy patrol division. Alas for him — and more so for us — he never found that level of acclimation. Though not uneducated, he was all but ignorant when it came to the realities of police work as it’s actually practiced. Worse, he could not make a decision without consulting some higher-up, even as he ignored the advice offered by sergeants far more experienced than he. In short, he was not a leader.
How, we wondered, had the Los Angeles Police Department allowed this man a) to be hired in the first place, b) to be promoted to lieutenant, and c) to be placed in a position for which he was so manifestly unqualified? The answer is a familiar one to L.A. cops and indeed to cops everywhere: he was a member of the Club.
I have written of the Club before, that informal society of people deemed fit for advancement into the upper levels of LAPD management. (As the reader has perhaps already guessed, I am not, nor have I ever aspired to be, a member.) Qualifications for admission are simple: Memorize the slogans and buzzwords in vogue among those already admitted, secure administrative jobs that offer contact with those already admitted and where exposure to physical dangers and personnel complaints are at a minimum, and, most important of all, avoid working patrol, most especially in those parts of town where crime is highest and the exposure to danger and personnel complaints is greatest.
The lieutenant I describe above studiously observed all of these rules, spending little time in patrol as a police officer or as a sergeant, none of it in a fast-paced division. He then got his position at Internal Affairs, where he passed judgment on officers doing the work he himself had made a career of avoiding. Thus prepared, he was promoted and duly inflicted on us, if only until those members of the Club above him in the chain of command came to realize they had erred in admitting him. He was then moved here and there within the department like an old piece of office furniture until, to the regret of no one who had worked for him, he retired.
I was reminded of him recently with the publication of the latest lieutenants list, the roster of those next to be admitted into the Club. In Band 1 of the list, with a score of 104, are four men, the four sergeants or detective supervisors found most suitable for a position as a watch commander at one of the LAPD’s 21 patrol divisions. None of the four are currently working patrol, and in the case of one of them, it’s been at least ten years since he’s seen the inside of a black-and-white.
In the next band, with a score of 103, are 16 men and women, only five of whom are working patrol divisions, none at any of the five divisions that cover South-Central L.A. In Band 3, with a score of 102, are 18 sergeants and detectives, seven of whom currently work at a patrol station, and among them is only one who works in South-Central.
Of the top 80 finishers in the examination process for lieutenant, i.e., those with the best chance of actually being promoted in the next two years, only 35 currently work patrol or divisional detectives, and of those just six work in South-Central L.A. Most of the rest work in office jobs far removed from the type of police work done by the men and women they will soon be asked to lead. In fact, four of the top 20 and 14 of the top 80 candidates currently work in some capacity at Internal Affairs, which we might call the Club’s headquarters.
None of this is to demean any of these soon-to-be lieutenants. They have taken note of the path to promotion and learned the requirements for admission into the Club, and they have ordered their careers in such a manner as to fulfill those requirements. But in so doing they have made themselves remote from the hazards attendant to real police work and the experiences of the men and women they will be supervising upon their promotion.
There is something wrong with a police promotional system that rewards so many who go to such great lengths to avoid doing police work. The best we can hope for is that none of them turns out to be as incompetent as the lieutenant described above, though some number of them probably will be. I pray I can finish my career without having to work for any of them.