In the October 15 Wall Street Journal, writer Carol Hymowitz described how the insular cultures at the top of many large corporations can be harmful to their bottom line. The article, “Sometimes, Moving Up Makes It Harder to See What Goes On Below,” began as follows:
Executives know success in business depends on identifying and fixing problems before they become crises. It is the most basic rule in management: No matter how smart your strategies seem on paper, if you don’t know how they’re being executed and whether there are urgent problems, you won’t be successful.
The higher executives climb, the less likely they are to know what is and isn’t working at their companies. Many are surrounded by yes people who filter information; others dismiss or ignore bearers of bad news.
Hymowitz’s article — copyright laws be damned — should be photocopied by the ream and distributed widely in the Los Angeles Police Department, for you would be hard pressed to find a culture more stubbornly insular than the one at the top of the LAPD. For proof of this, look no further than the department’s recently released report on the various breakdowns and missteps that led to all that unpleasantness at MacArthur Park last May 1 (previously discussed here, here, and here). The report, with its executive summary and various appendices and addenda, runs to more than 120 pages, but only an insomniac in search of relief should trouble himself to wade into it. Besides, the report is perhaps just as instructive for what it doesn’t say as for what it does.
To no one’s surprise, the report assigns the greatest share of the blame for what happened to now-retired Deputy Chief Cayler Carter, the senior LAPD officer at the park on May 1. Immediately after the incident, LAPD Chief William Bratton demoted Carter to the rank of commander and ordered him assigned to home. This effectively ended Carter’s career, all but forcing him to retire rather than endure the further indignities that surely would have awaited him had he remained with the department.
Wearing a slightly smaller set of horns is Commander Louis Gray, who was Carter’s second-in-command in the LAPD’s Central Bureau. Bratton does not have the legal authority to demote Gray as he did to Carter, but he removed him from his position and installed him in a do-nothing job at headquarters. (LAPD staff officers, i.e. commanders, deputy chiefs, and assistant chiefs, can be promoted or demoted within those ranks at the pleasure of the chief of police, but they cannot be demoted to captain or below absent a sustained allegation of misconduct.)
In for lesser degrees of blame are Captains John Egan and Tom McDonald, the commanding officers of Rampart Division, within whose boundaries MacArthur Park is located. To summarize the report, when trouble started at the park there was confusion as to just who was in charge of the hundreds of assembled officers. There were conflicting radio transmissions and long periods of frustrating silence from those in charge when officers on the line began to be pelted with rocks and other projectiles. No one in command seemed willing to make a decision, either to remove the officers from danger or take action against the lawbreakers.
As I’ve seen on any number of occasions over the course of my career, the LAPD brass tends to ignore trouble in the hope it will somehow stop on its own, then, when it becomes impossible to ignore, overreact to it. And this is where the report, for all its detail and blame-laying, fails to address a glaring defect within the LAPD, one that may well result in a breakdown similar to that seen at MacArthur Park. The report goes into great detail as to the responsibilities of an “incident commander” at the scene of events such as occurred at the park on May 1. What the report does not mention, but what is well known to even the greenest rookie in the LAPD, is that only a handful of officers in the department at the rank of captain or above have the necessary skills, experience, and leadership ability to fulfill that role. Most of them, sadly, don’t have the first idea about what to do when things turn ugly and the bottles start flying. You see, the path to the higher ranks within the LAPD does not wind through assignments where one gains experience in the more unpleasant aspects of police work. In fact, having spent too much time on the streets is usually seen as a career-killer if one hopes to promote beyond the rank of lieutenant. Instead, those who spend time in internal affairs and other administrative jobs are the ones most often rewarded with spots at the top of the promotional lists. And, having achieved their exalted positions, they then presume to know all there is to know about what happens on the street. This only leads to a police-related version of the corporate dysfunction Hymowitz cited in her Wall Street Journal article.
The MacArthur Park report should also be viewed for its unstated but nonetheless obvious political context. The incident began, you’ll recall, as a protest march for the rights of illegal aliens, a cause very much endorsed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and virtually the entire city council. At the press conference announcing the report’s release, Chief Bratton placed the entire blame for the melee on the LAPD. “I, as chief of police, regret deeply that this occurred on my watch,” Bratton told reporters (link requires free registration). “I accept full responsibility for it occurring on my watch.”
Receiving only passing notice in the report is the fact that the march itself, unlike the one that ended peacefully in downtown L.A. earlier the same day, had been denied a police commission permit. Despite this, neither the march’s organizers nor the marchers themselves, who repeatedly broke the law by blocking streets, came in for any criticism from Bratton or anyone else in L.A. city government. Illegal aliens, it would seem, are the new protected class here in Los Angeles, not only exempt from the law but even from criticism.
Also unwritten in the report, but plainly obvious to LAPD watchers, is the groundwork it lays for the coming decision on who will succeed Bratton as police chief, either when his term expires in 2012 or when he moves on to some other job before then. Former Assistant Chief George Gascon, now the chief of police in Mesa, Ariz., in singled out in the report for canceling crowd-control training for those officers most involved in the melee. Gascon is said to be interested in returning to the LAPD as chief, but standing in his way is current Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger, who has made his aspirations to succeed Bratton very clear. Despite having chain-of-command authority over Carter, Gray, and all the others saddled with the blame in the report, Paysinger comes out pretty well unscathed.
Finally, Bratton’s ostensibly noble acceptance of responsibility rings hollow. The incident occurred when the L.A. police commission was set to reappoint him to a second five-year term as chief. They postponed the decision for several weeks so as to appear deliberative, but even during that period there was never any doubt that Bratton would be retained. Still, Bratton waited until he was safely reappointed to release the report and don the sack cloth and ashes. Yes, he accepted responsibility, but no, he does not expect any consequences for having done so.
— Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.