LAPD study focused on small part of discipline system

LAPD discipline survey dealt with serious cases in which officers faced possible termination or suspension

The officers were blunt in their assessment of the Los Angeles Police Department's disciplinary system: It was unfair and needed to be fixed.

"It's all about who you know," wrote one of more than 500 officers and civilian employees who participated in a written survey conducted by the LAPD. "It seems that people with more time on [the job] get more of a break," wrote another.

The criticism was documented by LAPD officials who examined the agency's discipline process in the wake of the Christopher Dorner shooting rampage last year.

But the review analyzed only a narrow segment of the LAPD's expansive system for investigating and disciplining officers.

The report, which took 20 months to complete and will be presented to the city's Police Commission on Tuesday, focused mostly on officers sent to hearings for possible termination or lengthy suspensions after being accused of serious misconduct.

The review looked for disparities in whether officers of certain ranks, gender, or race were ordered to the hearings and ultimately penalized, concluding that data showed there was little merit to the complaints of bias.

Left unexamined, however, was the vast majority of the LAPD's misconduct cases, which are handled by officers' commanders.

The president of the union that represents the department's roughly 9,900 rank-and-file officers dismissed the report Monday as a disappointment.

Tyler Izen was critical of what he said were efforts by officials to blame officers' concerns on their poor understanding of how the discipline system works.

"They are saying the employees don't get it…I think [officers] are afraid they are going to be fired," he said. "I would like to see all the raw data because this report doesn't tell me much."

Steve Soboroff, president of the Police Commission, acknowledged that some officers believe the discipline system favors those with connections. But he praised the report, saying that it did a good job of analyzing claims of bias based on gender, rank and ethnicity. He said it would have been impossible to quantify all the complaints of disparities in punishments.

"You've got a perception that if you're a friend of the chief's, then all of the sudden it's better," Soboroff said. "You can't quantify that. How do you do the statistics on that? So that's a perception issue for the chief to work on. Nobody else but the chief. And he knows that."

The concerns officers expressed during focus groups convened for the survey were briefly summarized in the 46-page report. The rest of the document was devoted to an explanation of how the discipline process works, a detailed statistical analysis of the rank, gender and race of those involved in misconduct investigations and a brief discussion of some planned changes meant to improve the system.

The most significant statistical finding showed that the ethnic, gender and rank breakdown of officers sent to disciplinary panels for termination or lengthy suspensions roughly matched the demographics of the LAPD as a whole — a conclusion that department officials emphasized to rebut officers' notions of bias. Officials acknowledged in the report that they did not conduct any "empirical analysis" on how officers were punished.

"The report was never intended to answer all of the questions raised about the disciplinary system, but it is a significant step toward answering the concerns about bias based on gender, ethnicity and race," said Arif Alikhan, a special advisor to Beck who oversaw the report since joining the department earlier this year. "This is an ongoing process and the Department will continue to work to improve the system with feedback from our employees."

Alikhan said a wide-ranging search for bias in the discipline system would have meant trying to re-create and then compare the thousands of formal complaints filed against officers each year. Every case, he said, can conclude with department officials reaching any one of seven findings, while guilty officers face eight different types of penalties. Suspensions can range from one to 65 days.

"Such an analysis would be very challenging and beyond the scope of the department's ability," Alikhan said. Reviewing a sample of cases was also not feasible, he added.

Police Chief Charlie Beck launched the review after the February 2013 shootings by Dorner, a former LAPD officer who was seeking revenge for what he saw as his wrongful firing by the department. After Dorner killed the daughter of a retired LAPD captain and her fiance, he killed two police officers and wounded others during a massive search that lasted 10 days.

In a rambling online document, Dorner claimed that he had been the victim of racial discrimination within the department and a badly biased discipline system.

Though Dorner's actions were roundly condemned, his allegations about LAPD discipline struck a chord among many officers who were also unhappy with how punishments were meted out.

Capt. Peter Whittingham, an outspoken critic of Beck who has sued the department over retaliation that he claims he suffered for refusing to fire an officer at a discipline hearing, said the report was "deeply disappointing."

"I thought this was an opportunity for real transparency and for the department to show it really wants to address the core issues raised by officers," he said.

Questions about discipline had dogged Beck before Dorner surfaced. The chief clashed repeatedly with members of the commission over what they saw as the chief's tendency to give warnings to officers guilty of serious misconduct and the department's track record for handing down disparate punishments for similar offenses.

That concern was reinforced in March when The Times reported on the case of Officer Shaun Hillmann, the son and nephew of retired LAPD officers Beck knew. After Hillmann was recorded outside a bar uttering a racial slur and then lied about it to investigators, Beck overruled recommendations to fire the young officer and, instead, gave him a lengthy suspension.

Despite not reaching a conclusion about the fairness of punishments, officials did announce in the report plans to start using a so-called penalty guide when deciding on discipline. The guide, which will act like the sentencing guidelines judges use, is meant to instill consistency as it gives commanders the penalty they generally should mete out for various types of misconduct.

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