AFTER taking a half-decade's beating in the national spotlight, Los Angeles police officers are finding out how to spend less time on the beat -- and enjoy it more.
In what's being touted as a model for big-city police departments nationwide, the Los Angeles Police Department is experimenting with a three-day work week to cut costs, boost morale, and better ''protect and serve.''
''I think it's really terrific,'' says James Fyfe, a criminologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. ''Police work the worst hours in general. Anything that will keep them in the mainstream [of American life] is a good idea.''
The image of the Los Angeles Police Department has been tarnished in recent years. First there was the beating of Rodney King, which raised widespread questions of police brutality. Then there was an investigation into the department's response to the 1992 L.A. riots -- the worst in the city's history.
Now, charges of police conspiracy and incompetence are being played out daily in the press from the defense team in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. And Chief Willie Williams is at the center of controversy, being investigated for misconduct.
All of this makes the announcement of the compressed work week, begun on Jan. 22, a breath of fresh air for morale.
The experimental program has drastically cut sick leave, injury time, and overtime costs at the same time as it has raised the morale of the participating officers.
Supporters call the 16-month-long program a prototype for troubled police departments in other large US cities.
Compressed work weeks are being used in smaller police departments statewide, says Dennis Zine, a director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a union, ''but this is the first agency of this scale to try it out.'' Mr. Zine says it took both a city-charter amendment as well as a union contract adjustment to smooth the way. Both City Hall and the police union support the shorter work week.
A lack of union support killed a similar program in New York City 22 years ago. ''The Patrolman's Benevolent Association opposed any changes,'' Mr. Fyfe says, even though they improved life for the patrolmen.
For officer Ron Martinez, of the Van Nuys division, late is better than never.
He was divorced nine months ago. He says if this program had been instituted a year earlier, it might have saved his marriage. He rarely saw his wife and two young girls because he worked five days a week, with frequent overtime on weekends.
Now he works a clean, 12-hour shift, three days a week, and he's off for four days. ''It makes all the difference in the world,'' he says. ''I come back ready to go.'' He says he gets to see his kids every weekend, and he plans to finish his four-year criminal justice degree this summer -- something that would have been unthinkable before.
The Los Angeles pilot program targets four divisions -- an inner-city high-crime area, a residentially zoned area, a less-populated area, and a harbor area. Patrol officers typically take the three-day, 12-hour model, while detectives are using the four-day, 10-hour shifts.
Those on the so-called ''3/12'' schedule also work an extra day each month, typically in community service, to fulfill federally mandated monthly work quotas.
Capt. Richard Eide, of the Van Nuys division, says he was having trouble keeping his officers before the compressed work week. Now he has a waiting list. ''This is a good thing all the way around,'' he says.
Captain Eide attributes an 88 percent drop in sick time to the new work week. He says his officers used to take sick days just to get their personal affairs taken care of before. Now they don't need to.
The LAPD is monitoring the program closely. Two of the biggest concerns cited by some officers are fatigue and overtime racked up by court appearances.
So far, says officer Martinez, fatigue isn't an issue, because ''we used to work 10, 12-hour shifts just cleaning up our cases before. This isn't that different.''
According to Zine, the union is working with the courts to get them to be more accomodating to the new officer schedules and is certain that ''an arrangement can be worked out.''
Zine was part of the group that studied the compressed work week before it was adopted. He's confident the program will prove beneficial enough that the department will expand it citywide when the current experiment ends in April 1996.
The program's results so far are drawing attention from around the country: Last week, Morristown, N.J., sent a request for documentation on the pilot project.