June 22, 2000
To Live and Try in L.A.
To be a Jew and a cop is not that unusual, especially in L.A. There are dozens of Jews in the Los Angeles Police Department; in fact, the city's first chief of police, in 1872, was Emil Harris, a Polish-Jewish refugee.
They join the force for the same reasons others do - to catch the bad guys, to make the world a little safer - and also for some particularly Jewish ones: "From day one on the job I've felt how I was raised in a Jewish home with Jewish values," Sergeant David Rosenberg told me. "How important life is, and how important it is to do good for people."
These days, of course, being a cop in L.A. is particularly tough. Last week, an independent investigator found that Officer Rafael Perez, whose confessions of gross misconduct while part of the CRASH anti-gang unit broke open the Rampart scandal, was for the most part telling the truth: the cops he fingered did lie, plant evidence, abuse the guilty and the innocent.
Riding along with a beat cop, as reporter David Evanier did with Officer Bob Eisenhart (p. 10), or sitting and talking over lunch with Sgt. Rosenberg, puts a familiar face on swirling headlines and negative images. The problems are huge, systemic, matters of micro-policy and macro-leadership, and these two men, a relative rookie and a veteran, have their opinions. But mostly what they provide is understanding, what it's like now, in the dark days, to wake up and be a cop.
Rosenberg has been doing it for 12 years. Raised in an upper-middle class home in Encino, he had figured on becoming a doctor. To gain some insight, after high school he took a course to become an emergency medical technician. That led to a job as an ambulance driver, then a paramedic and firefighter with the Palos Verdes Estates Fire Department. By age 24, he was married with a child. He quit work to prepare for medical school at USC but longed to return to the adrenaline rush of the streets.
"Bottom line, I wanted to make a difference," he said over a meal at Lucy's El Adobe. "I came into police work to be part of the world, not a bystander."
Without telling family or friends, Rosenberg answered an L.A.P.D. recruitment ad. He was accepted to the police academy the same day his wife, Maureen, went into labor with their second child. When she heard the news, she dilated from two to 10 centimeters and delivered in 10 minutes.
Her husband graduated the academy in January 1988. "They do a good job training you," he says. "Everything they told us would happen did." His first call was a double homicide in the Valley, the bludgeoning of a consular official and his wife.
A year later, he put in for a transfer to South Central. It was crazy then: gangs, guns, crack, and he was in the thick of it. "You are very aggressive when you come out," Rosenberg said. "There's definitely a John Wayne syndrome: a big badge, a big gun, a lot of authority. But I'd come home with scratches and bruises and my wife would always ask me first about what happened to the other guy. She kept me grounded."A few years ago Rosenberg met a Chabad rabbi on Fairfax Avenue and began taking a deeper look at his religion. (His children have long attended Jewish day schools). It made him even more conscious of "doing mitzvot" on the job.
He tried harder to connect with people in the community, even if it meant bending rules. At a murder scene, he would allow a grieving relative to cross police lines and approach the victim, as long as doing so didn't destroy evidence. "That's not taught," he says. "But it's haimish."
Rosenberg's career parallels the department's toughest decade. Think about it: the 39th and Dalton rampage, Rodney King, the riots (he was blocks away from Florence and Normandie the instant they broke out), O.J. Simpson, and now Rampart.
He also knows what it's like to be firsthand on the receiving end of public wrath and suspicion. One November evening in 1990, he surprised a 17-year-old gang member on a dark South Central street. The teenager's hands were wrapped in a sweatshirt. He raised and pointed them at Rosenberg, who immediately drew his gun and fired, killing him. Later, the boy's friends told investigators he was only pretending to have a gun, to look tough.
Rosenberg has relived the instant interminably ever since. It didn't help that newspapers failed to report on the subsequent investigation that exonerated him. Neighbors near his Valley home stopped speaking to him. "It was a dose of reality," he says. "No one was there. No one knows what I'm thinking, what he's thinking. Everyone made me out to be evil."
Not coincidentally, the years on the beat have left their mark. Rosenberg has three bulging discs, arthritis of the spine, two trapped nerves in his shoulder, and a pacemaker to control ventricular tachycardia. Two months ago, he turned 40. Physically, he can no longer work the beat. "If I could be on the streets I would be," he says, "because that's where my heart is... literally."
And now Rampart. As a commander's aide at Operations - West Bureau, his beat is the department's board of inquiry into the scandal. Perez and his associates, he says, are "aberrations" in a system that is not, basically, corrupt.
"We need to do a better job of supervising and managing," he says. To Rosenberg, who speaks with the authority of a cop who has earned the right to criticize, the solutions to the department's problems aren't necessarily as incomprehensible as the leaders and politicians who are supposed to implement them. Here's his rundown:
Restore the Senior Lead Officers
Like many of the rank and file, he's unhappy with Chief Bernard Parks' decision to dismantle the post-King riot senior lead officer system. Parks took the SLOs away from their job as community point men and sent all 168 back to patrol. "The Chief's an intelligent man and didn't get where he is by not being so, but he took a system that somewhat worked and has broken it." Rosenberg says, still a bit incredulous.
Toughen up Supervisors
Rosenberg worked in anti-gang units and knows how thin the thin blue line can get. But, he adds, CRASH units have also been very effective. What's needed, he says, is training and supervision to make sure supervisors stand up to cops who cross the line. "Supervisors need more courage to get in another cop's face." It's a problem, he says, that goes all the way up the chain of command.
Streamline Complaint System
Too much of a supervising officer's time is spent processing complaints, and not enough is spent in the field, where his or her experience would be of greater use.
Since the Christopher Commission, city leaders have been slow to institute reforms on a large enough scale, such as an officer tracking system, increased legal training for officers and more active prosecution of laws on the books. "It would be one thing if we go through this and learn, but if we look at the slow response in implementing Christopher Committee recommendations following Rodney King..."Rosenberg lets out a sigh. "Everyone is looking at the police department as if we've failed," he says. "We didn't fail. Our hands were tied by the same politicians who are critical of the system now.
"Look, 99 percent, 99.5 percent of police officers are modern day knights. They welcome danger, and they despise criminals. That's the dedication you see in any police officer who puts on his uniform every day. They've given what I've given of myself to make the city a safer place. They are what separates chaos from the city."