New union chief puts different face on LAPD

Call her Donna Reed in a duster.

A former pastry chef, soccer manager, and mother of two, Mitzi Grasso insists that either she or her husband be with their children whenever they're not in school. She cooks steamed mussels and garlic linguini on her days off.

And for 15 years as a cop, she has also packed a gun for a living.

As the first woman ever to head the union representing some 9,000 Los Angeles police officers, Ms. Grasso, who favors long overcoats in the style of Wyatt Earp, will bring street-beat smarts to the job.

But more important, union officials say, she may help bring about widespread change in the culture of a police force that has, in recent years, been riddled with scandal and violence.

An articulate leader who emphasizes teamwork, conciliation, and practical solutions, Grasso is seen by many as a direct counterpoint to her two predecessors, both of whom were characterized by confrontational, pugnacious styles. Officials from the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) say the move is intended to underline "new thought processes" and a bigger embrace of family values.

Grasso wouldn't disagree.

"Police in past decades were characterized as hard-nosed guys who like to go to bars and drink hard when they get off the beat," said Grasso in an interview.

"That brought a lot of divorces and a police culture that caused a lot of discontent and disharmony in families," she says. "Many of the young [officers] coming up now are much more family-oriented, and we'd like to nurture and develop that."

Few would deny that the LAPD could use a fresh start. It has been a decade of steady, world spotlights on the 9,000-member police force, beginning with the Rodney King beating, moving into two O.J. Simpson trials, and continuing with the widespread "Ramparts" investigation, implicating dozens of officers in what most call the city's biggest scandal ever.

The department also ignited national dialogue over gender bias after an 18-month investigation brought allegations of widespread sexism in 1997.

League officials say Grasso's appointment will help offset the hardscrabble, macho image of the LAPD etched into the public imagination.

"The fact that ... such a male-dominated organization [has] elected a female to direct us really delivers a message of where we are trying to go right now," says Bob Baker, vice president of LAPPL. "With a membership and citizen population that is increasingly diverse, we think Mitzi embodies the concept of that diversity and openness to change."

Job No. 1 for Grasso will be to improve morale of the force, which by most accounts is at an all-time low. Job No. 2 will be to create an environment throughout the force that will attract the kind of well-rounded, educated, and balanced police force residents say they need.

That means screening for better candidates and teaching new methods of interaction with citizens on the street. It also could mean compressed work schedules in which officers work three 12-hour shifts and have more days to be with their families.

Still, some critics wonder whether promoting someone from its own ranks will provide enough impetus to make the needed changes that have so far eluded the department.

"She got elected because she has so bought into the [existing police] system that the guys know she is just like them - one of the guys," says one top official of a police watchdog group, who asked not to be identified.

And while many embrace the appointment in theory, some wonder whether the gender factor could actually backfire.

"I always worry when a woman is elected to any high office like this, because they often have a fear of doing what's necessary, including things for women, because they think they will be attacked for it," says Penny Harrington, president of the National Center for Women and Policing. Ms. Harrington has taken issue with Grasso's statements that she never encountered sexual harassment, which Harrington feels is widespread. (About 18 percent of LAPD officers are female).

"I hope she can use her position as an opportunity to improve conditions for women and at the same time represent all officers," says Harrington.

There's no doubt that Grasso is deeply loyal to the LAPD. Her husband is a 10-year veteran who made headlines in 1996 for saving a boy from the torrents of a storm-gorged L.A. river.

A staunch defender of the controversial former police chief Daryl Gates, Grasso also admits to bristling at many of the requirements handed the LAPD in a new consent decree by the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Because of abuses detailed in the Ramparts scandal, a court has ordered a federal monitor to oversee the LAPD for the foreseeable future.

"I really don't like the federal government trying to stick its nose in municipal business," says Grasso. Among other things, the DOJ wants much more scrutiny of officers, using hand-held Palm Pilots to register each interaction with citizens. Grasso says this one detail will cost millions to implement and will be unfair to police officers.

"The [DOJ] didn't talk to the police union, they didn't talk to residents, and they are asking us to make drastic changes while saying, 'Oh yeah, and you can figure out how to pay for all of these things,' " she says.

Other critics see this resistance as representative of an unwillingness to do what the LAPD needs to move forward.

"The LAPD is getting sued constantly for hundreds of millions of dollars for its inability to control some of its officers," says Harrington. "Grasso should not be in the position of being unwilling to spend the millions necessary to alleviate the conditions that lead to these outrageously expensive lawsuits."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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