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San Francisco police grapple with inexperience and leadership void

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 16, 1985

San Francisco

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.

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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.

``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.