Robert Vernon, assistant chief of police of the Los Angeles Police Department, orders 6,000 police officers onto L.A. streets every day. He tells officers to mobilize battering rams during drug busts, to guard visiting dignitaries, including the Pope and the President, and “to protect and to serve” (the LAPD motto) the public. He relishes being on the scene, making crucial command decisions.

Such decisions can be risky, and although Vernon stands six feet, three inches tall and weighs 210 pounds, he realizes he is not in control of touchy situations. Speaking about his police work in general, he says, “Honesty and integrity are the only things I have going for me. If I can maintain my integrity, I can get by.” Vernon remembers one crisp winter afternoon when, in a football stadium, of all places, his integrity was put to a difficult test.

Chief Vernon should have known some of the football fans would be in a mood to party—and to fight—when the game ended. Vernon was among 88,000 fans who had cheered the Los Angeles Raiders to a 30–14 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in an American Football Conference title game. The Raiders were going to the Super Bowl! The contest had been intensely physical, with three scuffles in the first three minutes and a Raiders’ penalty for roughing the kicker. A couple of days earlier one Raider linebacker predicted the team would win using their three P’s strategy: “pointing, pushing, and punching.” He had been an accurate prophet.

As the game ended, thousands of delirious fans rushed the L.A. Coliseum field to tear down the goal posts. A private security force composed of burly ex-football players could not stop them. But they tried, pushing and throwing punches. Their actions only incited the ...

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