OJ verdict a slap in the new face of the LAPD

DETECTIVE Paul Bishop of the Los Angeles Police Department sports a turquoise shirt and matching suede waistcoat, blow-dried blond hair and spotted socks with pointy leather shoes. "They give me a long leash around here," he said, as he showed off his brand-new sex crimes interview room.

Born in Worthing, Sussex, Bishop is the model of a modern LA cop. He raised $3,000 (pounds 1,900) to take one of his department's windowless rooms, with urine-yellow soundproof walls scrawled with graffiti, and make it somewhere comfortable for victims to cry in. He chose pastel wallpaper, comfy armchairs, a carpet, plastic potted plants.

Bishop is a successful crime writer, a soccer player, and a 17-year LAPD veteran named Officer of the Year in 1993 for his work with victims of sexual assaults. He has worked homicides and undercover narcotics. But along with his colleagues he took a body-blow last week.

"We felt betrayed," he said. "People literally had tears in their eyes." The moment was 10am Tuesday, and the detectives of the West LA division were mobilised for riot duty. Everyone was in uniform, gathered round the television set. The not guilty verdict for former football star OJ Simpson sent them reeling.

Three years after the LA riots, a critical mass of women and minority officers is finally challenging the old culture of paramilitary law enforcement in the LAPD. But change comes slowly, as the department lurches from one disaster to the next.

The LAPD committed huge resources to the prosecution of Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend, Ronald Goldman. Now its officers spend their time keeping the press away from OJ's front gates.

The verdict was "a total repudiation of the department by the African- American community, a stunning embarrassment for Los Angeles, a repudiation of the police work in the case, a willingness to believe the very worst," said author Joe Domanick. He is adding the OJ Simpson chapter to his history of the LAPD, To Protect and to Serve.

Simpson's defence drew a picture of biased, bungling policemen. They focused on Officer Mark Fuhrman legging it over the wall of Simpson's estate without a search warrant, and on an underfunded crime lab that defence experts portrayed as "a cesspool of contamination" for crucial blood evidence.

"The very expensive lawyers understood what they needed to do," said Domanick. Attorney Johnnie Cochran fired up a jury dominated by black women from South Central LA, with its legacy of Rodney King, and made it payback time for blacks railroaded by white cops.

Paul Bishop and his fellow detectives have lived intimately with the Simpson case for a year and a half. Their beat covers Los Angeles' most wealthy districts, and includes the posh Brentwood suburb where he lives. It was from their HQ that Fuhrman made his first ill-fated foray to the Simpson estate.The case has added to the abuse regularly heaped on officers. When Bishop interviewed the sister of a rape victim this month, a 40-year- old white woman, the first words out of her mouth were: "You better not screw this up like you screwed up the OJ case."

Recently one West LA detective on the phone to a potential witness was called a "white racist motherf*****". "This is news to me," said the officer, who is black.

Fuhrman, a lead investigator whose taped diatribes against blacks, Jews, and women allowed the Simpson defence to allege a conspiracy to frame their client, did not learn racism in the LAPD. Black classmates say he threatened interracial couples in high school. But information has reached the LA branch of the Black Police Officers Association about a small number of white officers involved in the remnants of the Ku Klux Klan and the far right militia movements, a member of the BPOA said last week. Officers in Men Against Women, a sexist group that Fuhrman joined, were harassing female officers in the late 1980s.

The LAPD once boasted of being the best in the country. But since the mid-1980s, businesses have left the city and the tax base has shrunk. The inflow of Hispanic immigrants and the outflow of whites have changed the racial and social make-up of Southern California.

Pay scales, previously among the highest anywhere in the US, have fallen behind other cities. The department struggles to hold on to experienced officers, many of whom prefer to leave a place where there are 900 murders a year for the easier pace in Beverly Hills, the Simi Valley, or Orange County.

It no longer makes sense to label the LAPD a white racist institution. Chief Willie Williams is black, and so are 15 per cent of his 6,000 officers. The department has an association for women officers, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, and Irish officers' associations, and one for gay and lesbian officers.

Although many black officers share the bitter disappointment over Simpson's acquittal, and dismiss out of hand the idea that he was framed, others insist the jurors' decision must be respected.

"When the Rodney King video emerged, a lot of black officers felt that the use of force was typical of beating up on a black man," said Ulysses "US" Taylor, a black patrolman. "Some felt they had been getting away with murder for years." He denounced the acquittal, but said: "There are educated black police officers who feel it's time for a black man to get off, that essentially the racism in LAPD and Mark Fuhrman tainted the credibility of all the evidence."

In West LA during the 1992 riots, black patrolmen wore Malcolm X caps.White officers re sponded by donning caps with KKK printed on them - until a captain told both sides to "knock it off". When the Simpson verdict came, Detective Bishop said, "there was no racism in the department. There were white officers holding on to black officers."

Joan Smith page 19