San Francisco police grapple with inexperience and leadership void

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A year-long series of embarrassing police incidents here reads like a seriocomic rap sheet on the San Francisco Police Department. But it may be an example, however exaggerated, of the ferment the nation's law enforcement experts see in the police community. The affirmative-action and citizen-involvement reforms of the 1970s are taking hold, and a younger, less militaristic generation of police officers is settling in. And in some cases, the transition has been rough.

San Francisco police chief Cornelius Murphy cites the youth factor and the unexpected results of reform as the tone-setting reasons for more than a half-dozen bad judgment calls here. Ethics breaches are the common thread among the otherwise unrelated incidents, the latest occurring when rifle-toting officers strayed onto an elementary school campus during a training exercise, apparently alarming some students.

Chief Murphy says low morale on the force is directly related to disputes over affirmative action that have created an unusually youthful patrol force and a leadership void. Because of promotions and hiring freezes caused by the affirmative-action problems, no one has been promoted since 1974, and the first new-hires came in the early 1980s.

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``We're dealing with a different culture than 20 years ago,'' Murphy says of the recruits and the different tone that reform has brought to the law enforcement community.

``There are technically better police officers today than when I came out of the academy 33 years ago,'' Murphy continues. ``They know the law, the procedures . . . but they don't have better common sense or better discipline.''

Starting with the procurement of a prostitute for a police academy graduation party last year, incidents -- major and minor -- have snowballed into a series of embarrassing headlines here.

A handful of officers on duty near the site of last summer's Democratic National Convention used numerical display cards to rate the attractiveness of women pedestrians; plainclothed police serving a single warrant at a local bar ended up holding all customers at gunpoint; a newspaper columnist who had criticized the department in print was arrested for walking an unlicensed basset hound without a leash; and during the recent police training exercise at the elementary school, the two armed officers received permission to enter from the principal but not from their own supervisors.

Further, Murphy says, a litigious tangle of affirmative-action reforms has created a leadership void. The majority of sergeants now in place are in temporary situations and do not have the authority to become strong role models. In addition, there are disputes about how promotional tests should be scored.

``Imagine being in a position where there's no way to help yourself up the ladder . . . it's completely demoralizing,'' says patrolman Rick Bruce, a 10-year veteran who has not had an opportunity for promotion. But he says the recent ethics problems are related less to morale and more to media exaggerations of fact.

Chief Murphy sees in his young crop of officers many of the same things law enforcement authorities around the country are seeing: better-educated and freer-thinking recruits with little or no military experience and little respect for the rigors of that sort of discipline. Further, they represent a more diverse cross section of the community than ever before. Consequently, the new and old generations, if they're not flexible, can clash when their styles are not reconciled.

``There has been a relaxation of life style in America, and police officers have to be examples in the community,'' explains Robert B. Kliesmet, president of the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO. ``Now they do and say as they please and that climate is difficult to control. The paramilitary has [often] not kept up with changes in American society.''

Chief Murphy admits the department has not kept up in all ways with the new police-community partnership, because the department's academy has always stressed a defensive -- more military -- posture. The chief says he's designing a community-relations campaign to create a ``community service'' image for the department, and he adds that the academy will relax its military approach.

This fits with the ongoing ``community policing'' movement, in which police departments reach out to citizens to form a partnership in the face of rising crime rates and decreasing budgets. This requires police to be more reflective of and responsive to their communities.

Consequently, today's police officer is expected to be more versatile, says Neil Behan, chief of police in Maryland's Baltimore County and a spokesman for the Police Executive Research Forum.

``They're remarkably different [than officers of a generation ago] -- not in terms of integrity but in other important areas,'' chief Behan says. ``They're more educated . . . . We try to teach them what is acceptable conduct in the use of force, deadly force, minority rights, women's rights. They know more in law and constitutional law, and training is much longer with more psychology and stress classes. We now even test vocabulary and basic writing.''

Although law enforcement authorities agree today's police officers must reflect their community, in everything from hairstyle to race, the officers still must be held to a higher standard of behavior. But as the community changes, administrators must be sure integrity doesn't, says Robert C. Trojanowicz, director of the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University.

Although today's recruit may have a different attitude toward authority, the supervisor ``must be very imaginative in the incentives used . . . because Jones, Smith, and Brown are three different people, and a supervisor should get to know them and tailor his supervision to them. He can't just say, `Do it or else.' It's got to be, `Do it because . . . ,' '' Mr. Trojanowicz says.

It's tough to get a police department within a single decade of reform to reflect the diversity of the community and work out conflicts that even the larger community hasn't been able to resolve, says Herman Goldstein, professor of law and criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin.

``It's creating extrordinarily difficult circumstances. These police officers are not recruited from Mars, . . . they're recruited from the larger community. And I'm always amazed that people are aghast when in a large department'' breaches of ethics are committed, Mr. Goldstein says. Not excusing San Francisco police for bad judgment, he adds, ``Given what we know about human behavior, our standards are often unrealistic. I'd rather departments be able to make errors and apologize for them than not be able to acknowledge them.''

And San Francisco officers are indeed being asked to acknowledge their errors here, chief Murphy says. The same cases have been used as hypothetical examples in expanded ethics-training courses at the academy and in on-the-job courses for police.

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