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Byline: Deborah Sullivan Daily News Staff Writer

Officer Edward Brentlinger stood his ground in the face of the firestorm of bullets from body-armored gunmen during the North Hollywood bank robbery.

His courage earned him an LAPD Medal of Valor and a national Top Cop award, while the shootout served as a turning point for Los Angeles Police Department's image, so badly damaged by the Rodney King beating and the riots.

``It's talked about as being the defining moment in modern police shootouts,'' Brentlinger said. ``It showed the tenacity of our department because we didn't quit, even faced with such odds.''

Today, on the second anniversary of that shining moment for Brentlinger and other officers, the LAPD's image has retained its luster, but many officers say morale has plummeted.

Ever since Bernard C. Parks took over as chief a few months after the shootout, the Police Protective League has been at odds with him despite his high personal popularity throughout nearly all segments of the community.

The key issue: discipline.

``They're severely penalizing police officers, severely crippling their careers with this iron-fisted policy of discipline,'' said Dennis Zine, spokesman for the police union, which turned against Parks early on when he rejected its three-day, 12-hour work week demand.

Parks - a no-nonsense, spit-shined officer - instituted a strict disciplinary system intended to hold officers to high personal and professional standards and ensure the integrity of the LAPD.

The system has raised the stakes for misconduct, and elevated the importance of citizen complaints. Last year 54 officers were fired, largely for off-duty offenses, and 10 have lost their jobs this year.

Officers say they agree that brutality, domestic violence and criminal activity is intolerable on the force.

But many said they believe careers are being stalled, and jobs lost, for lesser offenses. They feel commanders aren't disciplined as strictly as officers, and that the disciplinary system presumes officers to be guilty until proven innocent.

``Right now, I would say the Police Department is more hostile toward its officers than it used to be,'' Brentlinger said, echoing the apprehension of many others on patrol.

Parks said the system protects the standards officers swear to uphold.

``Our discipline system is not set up for the officers or the chief or the union to feel comfortable with,'' he said. ``The disciplinary system is set up for the credibility of this department within the community.''

Parks' commanders say the changes represent a return to order after the laissez-faire direction of former Chief Willie L. Williams.

``What you're really seeing under Chief Parks is a re-establishment of the rules of the LAPD, and resentment among those who don't want to follow the rules,'' said Valley Bureau Chief Mike Bostic.

The controversy raging in the ranks highlights the tension between fairness to the officers and accountability to the public, as the LAPD struggles to shed its image as an agency that tolerated rogue officers and cement its reputation as a partner to the public.

Marked sea change

On Feb. 28, 1997, bank robbers Larry Eugene Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu burst into the North Hollywood branch of Bank of America, spraying a hail of automatic gunfire and shattering teller barricades with armor-piercing bullets.

Nearly 350 police officers and FBI agents responded that day. Among the first was Brentlinger, who exchanged gunfire with Phillips as the robber left the bank and began firing an AK-47 at several citizens huddled behind a parked car.

The spray of bullets blasted through the vehicle, striking the citizens, and battered Brentlinger's squad car, which jolted and bounced under the fusillade. As Philips unleashed a barrage of automatic fire, Brentlinger shot back with his 9mm handgun 28 times.

``It was the scariest thing I'd ever seen,'' said the stocky, sandy-haired veteran officer. ``This was the kind of thing you see in a war, not on the city streets. It was absolute fear.''

Brentlinger became one of 10 LAPD officers to receive the Top Cop award from the National Association of Police Organizations.

The shootout marked a sea change in public perceptions of the department. The LAPD, tarnished by charges of racism, brutality and incompetence after the King beating and the O.J. Simpson trial, was seen around the world responding bravely to overwhelming firepower in the largest urban gunbattle ever televised.

North Hollywood residents, long supportive of police, became even more effusive, waving and cheering at officers on patrol.

``It was an incredible boost for us in the LAPD,'' Bostic said. ``We felt an incredible pride in what our officers could do. And I think the public felt the same way, that the LAPD can't possibly be as bad as we've portrayed and show this kind of heroics in protecting the community.''

Years of expansion

The spectacular event cast light on the transformation under way in the department.

Since the King beating in 1991, the percentage of Latino officers has jumped from 22 percent to 31 percent, while Asian-American or Filipino officers have nearly tripled their representation from 2.3 percent to 6.3 percent of the force. African-American officers have remained at just under 14 percent.

Women, who made up less than 14 percent of the force in 1991, now comprise 18 percent of its ranks. There are now three women commanders and three captains, up from only one captain in 1991.

Federal money has allowed the LAPD to expand from 7,641 officers in 1993 to 9,668 this year, bringing response time down from 7.8 to 6.6 minutes citywide, and doubling the number of hours available for officers to prevent crime before it happens.

During that same period, the department purchased 238 new squad cars and three helicopters.

The North Hollywood Division moved from its cramped headquarters to a spacious, sunlit new $14.6 million building on Burbank Boulevard. A $744 million public safety bond measure on the April 13 ballot would add six more police stations and a new Valley bureau.

All complaints accepted

But all the expenditures and public support has not made for a happy police force.

Under Parks' command, the department has undergone a reorganization including a streamlined command structure, redeployment of senior lead officers from community liaison roles back to squad cars, a stiffer disciplinary system and a policy of documenting and tracking all complaints, regardless of whether they rise to the level of misconduct.

``What's important is that a person who lives or works in the city has the ability to go into a station and make a complaint and feel as though they're going to get a credible response and an appropriate disposition,'' Parks said. ``So it's incumbent on the department to, No. 1, accept all complaints, and to then be able to track them and retrieve them for reference.''

Mark Epstein, former deputy general counsel to the Christopher Commission, which laid out a blueprint for LAPD reform, said Parks' discipline is in line with the commission's recommendations.

``I think that the seriousness with which discipline is being addressed by the department is overall a good thing,'' he said.

Joe Hicks, executive director of the city Human Relations Commission, said the changes are beginning to restore the department's credibility in communities that have long seen it as an adversarial force.

``The chief is a very strict disciplinarian,'' he said. ``That has not endeared him to certain elements of the department. But I think it has raised confidence in the communities that he will not look the other way if policies are breached or if officers behave in ways that are not appropriate.''

Hicks said he believes the majority of LAPD officers welcome the tightened standards.

`It sends the right message that if you carry a badge and a gun and a nightstick, you've got to be pretty much be beyond reproach, in terms of how you conduct yourself both on and off the job,'' Hicks said.

Career crusher

But some officers feel the new system, rather than ensuring the integrity of the rank and file, reveals a lack of faith in it.

Supervisors struggle to reassure officers that complaints that aren't found to be misconduct won't result in discipline.

But officers worry that multiple complaints - even false or frivolous ones - can harm their careers. They note that officers on the toughest assignments, who are most proactive on the streets, are likely to rack up complaints simply by doing their jobs.

Van Nuys Officer Leticia Yanecko said most officers are gun-shy of complaints.

``You can still feel the uneasiness with any type of decisions you make,'' she said. ``You're more hesitant. Not that it stops me from making decisions that are life-threatening.''

North Hollywood Sgt. Robert Davis said some officers he supervises are nervous that routine activities like traffic stops can turn into career crushers if a disgruntled driver files a complaint.

``The fear is not that the traffic stop is going to be dangerous, but that there will be problems administratively,'' he said.

Union officials say that fear is consuming the department.

``There's more stress and anxiety because of what we call a reign of terror than facing suspects on the street,'' Zine said.

City officials see the friction as cause for examination.

``There are categories of actions that range from very serious misconduct to less serious,'' said Councilwoman Laura Chick, chairwoman of the council Public Safety Committee. ``The way the system deals with discipline should always be fair and equitable.''

LAPD interim Inspector General Deirdre Hill said systematic audits of the disciplinary system are needed either to put to rest, or call to light, complaints against it.

``There's been no real validation of the suspicions people have that there's inequity in the system,'' she said. ``That's something that this office needs to look at, and needs to release information that people will trust.''

Make it work

Parks said he doesn't believe that fear of discipline is hindering police on their beats, noting that serious crimes are down 13 percent for the year to date.

``You can't make approximately 220,000 arrests in one year and drop crime 21,000 crimes unless there's somebody out there working quite hard,'' he said. ``And the issue is that unless we want to believe that the CHP and the sheriffs are doing that, I would say that the LAPD is doing quite a job.''

Nonetheless, the issue of morale has buzzed through the department, charged by bristling tension between the union and the chief.

Parks accuses the union of meddling in management and ``fanning the flames of discontent.''

Union officials blame Parks for ``busting morale'' and argue that their rancor against him reflects widespread resentment within the ranks.

The discontent took a macabre turn when a small group of officers added a waiver to their personnel records excluding Parks from their funerals if they die in the line of duty.

Lisa Gult, an officer who received 66 days off without pay after a trial board found her guilty of lying about a hit-and-run incident, led the charge. Gult, who is limited to station duty now, is challenging her case in court.

She said 70 officers have entrusted her with their waivers in protest against Parks.

``He's very unfair, and he's a dictator,'' Gult said. ``He takes things personally, and he's very vindictive.''

While some officers believe the funeral waivers show the depth of discontent with the chief, others consider it a childish outburst.

``The chief, like it or not, is at the top rung of the organizational ladder and many of his decisions are not open to appeal,'' wrote North Hollywood Sgt. Larry Poehls in a letter to the editor signed by five other sergeants and a lieutenant. ``Airing out your dirty laundry for all of the world to see only degrades the department and the thousands of professional officers who make up its core.''

Lorne Kramer, a former LAPD commander who is now chief of the Police Department in Colorado Springs, Colo., said he remains in touch with friends in the LAPD.

While he respects both the chief and union directors, he finds the discord troubling.

``I think it's terribly destructive, morale-wise,'' Kramer said. ``If there is a siege mentality where officers believe it is `us the officers vs. the management,' communication breaks down and any possibility of working toward mutual goals deteriorates.''

Officers who dislike Parks' changes forge ahead with his orders nonetheless.

``You go out and support what he wants to do whether you agree with it or not, and try to make it work,'' Brentlinger said.

Seen tough things

On the cold night of Dec. 31, the North Hollywood Division ushered in the new year with another dire emergency.

Responding to a call of a man with a gun, officers confronted 34-year-old James McCracken, armed with an arsenal of automatic and semiautomatic weapons and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

McCracken began firing on the officers, critically injuring Officer Cynthia French before other police fatally shot him.

Coordinating the response was North Hollywood Sgt. Joan Leuck, a former tactics instructor at the Police Academy and one of those who objected to the funeral waiver campaign.

``I haven't seen unfair things,'' she said. ``I've seen tough things. But not unfair. Not unreasonable.''

Warm and vivacious in the station, she switches into steely concentration as she gets down to the brass tacks of police work.

``We in every way are here for your standards,'' she said, checking her weapons for safety. ``You are not here to pay me to make sure I'm happy.''

Loading shells into a shotgun without looking, her habitual drill for the chaos of armed confrontation, she added:

``You've got to be able to survive. I'd like to think that all the officers who do have complaints do not get so distracted that they forget how to survive or protect the public.''


4 Photos

PHOTO (1--Color) A heavily armed, armored bank robber takes aim in North Hollywood on Feb. 28, 1997.

(2--Color) Outgunned but not outclassed, Los Angeles police officers prepare to move in on the North Hollywood Bank of America on Feb. 28, 1997.

Gene Blevins/Special to the Daily News

(3--Color) The front page of the Daily News documented the terror of the Feb. 28, 1997, North Hollywood shootout.

(4--Color) ``I haven't seen unfair things. I've seen tough things. But not unfair. Not unreasonable.''

- Sgt. Joan Leuck, North Hollywood Division of the LAPD
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 28, 1999

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