The Sue Me, Sue You LAPD Blues

A mentor of mine, now long retired and living happily far, far away from Los Angeles, once explained for me the difference between police officers who do police work and those who devote themselves to advancing up the chain of command. The “climbers,” he said, are mystified at how police work is actually performed on the streets. They sit in roll call and watch as other officers are handed subpoenas to appear in court day after day after making good arrests.  As their own inferiority becomes more and more apparent, both to themselves and to their coworkers, they become envious and even contemptuous of those whose police skills have outpaced their own. And while their more skilled colleagues are developing expertise at making cases, the climbers busy themselves with studying for promotion so as to advance into positions that allow them to second-guess and belittle those who do the work they themselves were incapable of doing.

Worse, the culture of the department’s command officers is such that timidity and even cowardice is often rewarded. The best boss one can have in the LAPD is one who is content to remain at his current rank. But people looking ahead to their next promotion tend to avoid making decisions that might in any way lead to controversy and impede their acquiring that next bar or star on their collars. This has been shown to be true even in hypothetical exercises during training sessions.

Officers throughout the LAPD are now undergoing training on how to respond to a terrorist attack such as occurred in Mumbai, India, in 2008. Classes are broken up into small groups and then presented a scenario depicting an attack against a target somewhere in Los Angeles. The goal of the training is to ensure that officers at any rank and any assignment are prepared to take immediate  action when faced with such an attack, yet some supervisors have said they wouldn’t come anywhere near it if one were to occur. Having such an attitude is pathetic enough, but boldly admitting to it without the expectation of consequences shows how poorly the LAPD sometimes chooses its leaders.

Some time ago an officer approached me and sought my advice on a problem he was having with a supervisor at his division. The officer has a solid reputation and an unblemished record, yet he felt the supervisor had acted unprofessionally toward him and had told others that he, the supervisor, would target the officer for disciplinary action should the opportunity -- real or imagined -- arise. The matter had been brought to the attention of the division’s captain, and the officer asked me what I thought should and would be done.

There was a solution that readily suggested itself, I said, one that held the promise of a significant upside for the officer while having little or no potential downside for the supervisor, the captain, or the department. I told the officer what course I would follow if I were the captain.

“Do you think that’s what he’ll do?” asked the officer.

“I doubt it,” I said. “Never underestimate the chain of command’s capacity for doing the wrong thing.”

And indeed the wrong thing is exactly what was done, turning a small problem into a big one, dispiriting a motivated police officer, and exposing the department to a potential lawsuit to be lamented by the Los Angeles Times in some future editorial.

And what’s more unfortunate still is that when this column is posted, there will be many within the LAPD who are more desirous of finding and silencing me than they are of fixing the problems I’ve written about.

I’m not worried. If they mess with me, I’ll sue.