• THREE POLICE OFFICERS SIT NEAR the bar of a West Hollywood steak house, drinking wine and glancing from time to time at the wall, where an old painted caricature of O.J. Simpson, yellowed by a decade or two of drifting smoke, serves up a mocking, million-dollar smile. Two days after the verdict, these cops aren't amused. They belong to a disgraced and discredited L.A.P.D., a department maligned around the world, thanks to Johnnie Cochran and Mark Fuhrman, for shoddy police work, perjured testimony and racially motivated assaults on innocent people. No wonder these cops are thinking about getting out. "Nobody wants to stay," says Detective David Lambkin, 42, a tidy man with wire spectacles and a scholarly air. "I've already sent for information on jobs elsewhere." Says Officer Katherine Guel, 34: "People talk about it constantly. They don't have much fight left. Why stay where you're constantly getting beat up?"

    Cop as villain, cop as victim: Is it any wonder, in a case that breeds mutually exclusive points of view, that the famously brutal Los Angeles Police Department sees itself as the brutalized one? The bungling, violent department--the L.A.P.D. of Rodney King--was brought to mind even after the verdict last week, when patrolmen spilled from a half-dozen squad cars and pulled guns on a few young men painting pro-O.J. graffiti at the corner of Florence and Normandie, the epicenter of the 1992 riots. Yet cops such as Lambkin and Guel describe a different department: flawed but trying to reform, still catching bad guys and pulling cats out of trees while being eaten alive by the bitter, corrosive effects of public mistrust. This demoralized funk, says community-relations officer Peter Repovich, "causes 400 cops to quit each year"--good detectives such as Lambkin, who says he's tired of being cross-examined by lawyers parroting Johnnie Cochran lines; good patrol officers such as Guel, a Hispanic single mother. She is as far from Fuhrman's swaggering, racist style as Fuhrman is from the old-school L.A.P.D. icon Joe Friday. An eight-year veteran from south Los Angeles, Guel is the kind of cop this department needs: a member of the community she patrols, not a mercenary in an occupying army.

    Unfortunately, officers such as Guel aren't common enough. Eighty-three percent of the force lives outside the city limits. And the police culture that produced Mark Fuhrman--promoting him to detective when he should have been stripped of badge and gun--is alive and well.

    In September, just days after the Fuhrman tapes were heard around the world, Police Chief Willie Williams disclosed that two 18-year L.A.P.D. veterans had been suspended for falsifying evidence, forcing prosecutors to drop murder charges against two suspects as well as jeopardizing hundreds of other cases. One of those detectives, Andrew Teague, had been named among 44 violence-prone "problem officers" in a 1991 report by the Christopher Commission, a panel that investigated the department in the wake of the Rodney King beating. Also making the list was Officer Michael Falvo, now under investigation for the July 1995 shooting of a 14-year-old Latino boy. As it turns out, 33 of the Christopher Commission's 44 problem officers are still on the force, and as of late last summer, 19 of them were still on the street.

    The list was too short. Fuhrman wasn't on it, and new rogues keep coming. Last month Detective William Jang was charged with offering to fix a case in exchange for a $3,000 bribe, and a grand jury began investigating Detective Raymond L. Doyle for allegedly forging a judge's name on a warrant. These are the sort of rogue-cop tricks Fuhrman boasted about in his interviews with screenwriter Laura Hart McKinny. Yet on the day of the O.J. verdict, when Chief Williams commented on the public's obvious loss of faith in his department, he could muster nothing better than the police world's hoariest cliche: "The few bad apples that came out in the trial," he said, "are not reflective of the L.A.P.D."

    Those words signaled a new low for L.A.'s first African-American police chief, who has been reaching for middle ground--trying to bolster morale without alienating the black community--but missing as often as not. Although Williams, unlike his department, still finds approval among the public, he hasn't won over his rank and file. In a recent poll by the city's police union, 83% of officers said they did not believe he can effectively lead them. "Willie wants to have the respect of the community and the loyalty of the department," says Ramona Ripston, executive director of the A.C.L.U. Foundation of Southern California. "But it's not possible. [Former Police Chief] Daryl Gates wooed the department. He didn't care what the community thought."

    That strategy encouraged a martial policing style that led to the 1991 King beating, the crisis that forced the city's five-member police commission to replace Gates. Williams, who had been Philadelphia's chief, arrived in Los Angeles the next year promising to reform the department's "paramilitary mentality." But the outsider allowed Gates' entire command staff to stay on the job and failed to oust most of the 44 problem officers. He didn't remake the department, and he couldn't be the patrolman's pit bull, as Gates had been. So now he courts irrelevance.

    "Williams keeps talking about reform," says Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, a former police commission president, "but I did not see him lift a finger to implement it." Greenebaum recently resigned to protest a scandal in which Williams accepted free lodging during five trips to Las Vegas, then lied about doing so. The city council backed Williams over Greenebaum's police commission, but Williams filed a claim against the city for leaking the report, then settled out of court--a shabby little sideshow to the O.J. spectacle.

    Greenebaum and others point to some signs of progress. The police chief, for example, is now limited to two five-year terms. And a new inspector general, who reports directly to the police commission, may offer much needed oversight. The A.C.L.U.'s Ripston notes that brutality complaints have dropped. (They were down to 1,506 last year, from 1,825 in 1993.) Williams' boosters say the L.A.P.D. is more sensitive because of him, but no one credibly argues that the core problem has been solved. L.A.'s cop culture still has room for arrogant "cowboys" who ride roughshod over the civil rights of others while scoffing at cops who try to defuse street confrontation. "There's still an element that's being tolerated, if not promoted and allowed to thrive," says Greenebaum.

    Last month Williams promised a "full biopsy" of Fuhrman's career and said the department had added 100 officers to the infamous "problem" list. After two days in which the L.A.P.D. failed to produce any such names, however, Williams admitted that there was no active list, just "a continuing review from time to time." The admission led some to wonder whether the Fuhrman biopsy will be any more real. If it does uncover hard evidence of beatings by Fuhrman and others, the department will be only too happy to bring charges. "This guy is despicable; we're all in agreement about that," Lieut. John Dunkin told TIME. Fuhrman, who has retired and moved to Idaho, also faces possible perjury prosecution by L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti, whose career prospects may be dimmed by the Simpson acquittal. Privately, civil rights leaders say, Garcetti has promised to go after Fuhrman to the fullest extent of the law.

    That won't be enough to reassure the city's black community that the L.A.P.D. will ever change. Williams, who has two years left on his contract, needs to show new managerial muscle if he hopes to be back for a second term. The local police union remains an obstacle to reform, keeping rogues on the job and resisting residency requirements--and cash incentives for in-town living--that could foster understanding between cops and community. Minority recruitment has improved, but women make up just 15% of the force. Good ole boys still run the show.

    At a police commission meeting at a South Central school in late August, Williams and the rest of the L.A.P.D. brass took turns expressing their shock over the Fuhrman tapes and "zero tolerance" for his ilk. A woman named Rosilyn Clayton rose from the crowd. "How dare you sit up there and be outraged and horrified?" said Clayton, who had filed a formal complaint against Fuhrman in 1994. "How dare you be surprised? You knew what he was doing." Now, of course, the world knows what he was doing--and the L.A.P.D. can never again pretend to be shocked.