From his vantage point at the wheel of an ambulance, Steve Lurie had a front row seat to one of the most turbulent chapters in Los Angeles history—the 1990s. At the time, he was an anthropology student at the University of California, Los Angeles, driving an ambulance part-time to pay for school. “The thing with emergency medical work in South LA is that you interact a lot with police,” Lurie explains. “I got to know sheriffs and detectives; they became mentors and friends. By the time I graduated, that looked like something I wanted to do.”
Fast forward 20 years, Lurie is now Captain Steve Lurie, the commanding officer at the Hollywood Patrol Division, having steadily risen through the ranks at the Los Angeles Police Department.
You began your career as a police officer right out of college. Did your education influence your police work?
There was no sociology major at UCLA. There was cultural anthropology, which studies a lot of the same things, from a participant observer standpoint. So, there I am driving an ambulance in South LA, through the riots. You’re in a very real way a participant observer.
One thing that any officer will tell you, you have a front row seat to the human experience. I was learning about urban development and criminal justice and public housing and police-community relations. In this role as an ambulance driver, you’re not threatening to the community. Everybody likes someone who’s there to help. I probably didn’t realize how fortunate I was, as a 19-year-old kid, to learn so much about Los Angeles.
How did your law degree come into play?
Once I got to the LAPD, policing was changing so quickly, and I wanted to climb the chain of command. I looked at different graduate degree programs and the most powerful [for me at the time was to] go to law school. So, I went to Loyola at night, and stayed in policing. I had no desire or interest in leaving.
For the first time since preschool, I really liked school—I loved it. I really dove into the law school curriculum. I excelled academically. Legal jobs are based on the grades you get in law school, and I did really well—and frankly, I got tempted. I could make more money, something like 400% more.
When I got an offer from a prestigious LA law firm—I won’t say which one now—it was the week before September 11th.
After that, I was filled with a deep sense of purpose and patriotism. My boss at the LAPD said, “I understand this whole lawyer thing, but we have to start doing a lot of local counterterrorism, and I’d like you to stay for a year.”
I agreed to stay for a year to stand up this infrastructure protection project. In the way that things happen, I did counterterrorism for three years, and got promoted a couple times. They say everything happens for a reason. Having followed the careers of my fellow corporate lawyers, there’s no doubt in my mind that I made the right choice for me.
Once I decided to stay, I dove into police law. It was intriguing and interesting to me how federal courts—and especially the Supreme Court—manages and restricts and enables and empowers policing. I started teaching at law schools because of a frustrating point [that I encountered] when I became a detective. I was on homicides, sex crimes—I spent a lot of time on the witness stand. I was frankly aghast at how poorly prosecutors and defense attorneys understood policing. They didn’t understand police law, police culture. My course, that I designed and still teach, is for lawyers, upper division law students and future public defenders and prosecutors to get a deep dive into police law.
What has been the most rewarding chapter of your career?
Definitely becoming a command officer. I’m a captain. In every sector, up through and including lieutenant, your primary job is doing police work. Now that I’m a command officer, it’s adrenaline-filling and exciting for me, in the way chasing a bad guy is when you’re younger. I can affect major policy decisions. I can make LAPD a better place for our officers. It’s a sudden and drastic shift. There are 10,500 sworn officers at LAPD. There are 105 people at my rank or above. Suddenly I’m in a little world where if I have an idea, I can go see the chief of police.
The real heroes are the officers that have three to 10 years on the job. Right now, they’re in a car, waiting for the next call. Now, as a captain, I can help guide and mentor those young officers in a much more direct way.
How has policing changed over the course of your career?
That last 20 years have seen the most change ever. I became a cop right around the riots. Rodney King was a pivotal moment. And then through 9/11. Policing has done a complete 180-degree turn. You’ll see this all the time if you read about policing—the shift from warrior to guardian. Those are big catchphrases. When I became a police officer, we were warriors—tough people who deal with tough criminals. Now, we have transitioned completely from the warrior mentality to the guardian mentality.
California is the most interesting place to be studying criminology right now. We have a massive sample. California is home to the three strikes law, during my generation of policing, under Governor Pete Wilson. We were hard on crime. We’d lock you up forever. Now we are the home of AB109. No state has made so much of a U-turn. I tell my Bovard College students, you are jumping right into the laboratory.
Why are you excited to develop the next generation of leaders in criminal justice?
There has never been a time in American history when the need for creative, compassionate, criminal justice thinkers has been more urgent.
They are entering into their fields of study at one of the most dynamic, agile times for criminal justice and criminal justice reform. This is not just theoretical for them; their ideas and research will be put into real policy work immediately. That should be very exciting for all of them.
What are common misconceptions about working in this field?
I think the most common misconception is probably that the system is completely focused on arrest, trial and punishment. The research into rehabilitation, the causes of criminal behavior and opportunities for offenders to stop offending along their life path are some of the most exciting things going on right now in criminal justice.
Professor Steve Lurie teaches CJ 505: Analysis of Criminal Justice Systems.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.