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LAFD audit criticizes investigations of top officials

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The Los Angeles Fire Department has failed to properly investigate misconduct allegations against the fire chief, top union officials and members of an elite unit that delves into charges involving rank-and-file firefighters, according to an audit presented to the city Fire Commission Tuesday.

The report by the agency’s top watchdog concluded that the process of probing such sensitive cases is underfunded, poorly run and plagued by sloppy record keeping and incomplete fieldwork. The department has ignored complaints and routinely allowed cases to drag on until after the statute of limitations to impose discipline has expired, the report found.

“The public cannot have confidence that the same standards of conduct apply equally to everyone,” Independent Assessor Stephen Miller said in the 75-page report.

The findings come as Chief Brian Cummings has struggled to restore confidence in his management of the 3,500-employee department after fire officials admitted last year that they overstated response times, making it appear rescuers arrived faster to emergencies than they actually did.

In recent weeks, Cummings has faced growing criticism from the city Fire Commission that oversees the department. Panel members have repeatedly challenged the chief's controversial plan to beef up medical rescue services by shifting firefighters from engines to ambulances.

Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti, who has said all department managers will have to reapply for their jobs after July 1, has criticized the chief’s leadership, disagreed with his plans to restructure the agency’s 911 call center and questioned the reasoning behind his ambulance shift. Cummings told The Times he had not spoken with Garcetti since election day, but said staff members are working to schedule an interview. 

On Tuesday, fire commissioners expressed concern over the new audit and instructed the department to follow up with reforms. 

“We owe more than what we've been doing to our people and the public,” said Commissioner Alan J. Skobin, who called on the department to “change the culture” by focusing more seriously on discipline.

The report also criticized the handling of Cummings’ 2011 admission that more than a decade earlier he and other on-duty firefighters posed for photographs with scantily-clad women while Cummings was a captain at a station near the Venice boardwalk. At least one photo involved a topless woman alone on a fire truck.

Misconduct complaints against rank-and-file firefighters are typically handled by the LAFD’s Professional Standards Division. But when an allegation involves those investigators, top firefighters’ union officials or the fire chief, the probe is instead overseen by a deputy chief who assigns special investigators.

The audit presented Tuesday reviewed nearly three years' worth of cases from that alternative investigation process and recommended dozens of reforms.

Department officials promised to increase oversight of the special investigations with biweekly meetings in which the chief will monitor ongoing cases. They also said they will seek City Charter changes that would give investigators the power to issue subpoenas.

Cummings said at least two new civilian investigators are needed to handle the workload of alternative investigations. More than 60 cases have been referred to the special process since its inception.

The case involving Cummings’ photographs, which came to light more than a decade after the statute of limitations had passed, was resolved by Fire Commission President Genethia Hudley-Hayes without a thorough investigation, the audit found. The chief gave himself a penalty of 120 hours of community service. Cummings told The Times he has completed his community service, saying he served most of the hours at the Downtown Women's Center on skid row.

The audit criticized the handling of the case, saying the Fire Commission lacks the legal authority to discipline the chief. In response, the department promised to forward future complaints against a sitting fire chief to the mayor’s office.

Also Tuesday, the chief presented a revised report on his controversial move to shift firefighters to ambulances. The plan had been criticized as inadequate by commissioners at their previous meeting. In a heated exchange, one member again challenged the data analysis underpinning the chief's redeployment decision.

“Where's the beef?” asked Skobin, who oversaw the overhaul of the department's data analysis after last year's response-time controversy. “I haven't seen any data whatsoever, despite being told this is data driven.”

Commissioners requested Cummings return with a fuller justification for the redeployment of personnel, which moved 22 firefighters per shift from engines to ambulances. The shift added an ambulance at 11 stations, but commissioners and the firefighters' union have questioned whether the distribution of the units was based on sound data analysis.

 

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ben.welsh@latimes.com

robert.lopez@latimes.com

 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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