At issue in the rapidly intensifying dispute is what LAPD Chief William J. Bratton and the five-member commission hope will be one of the final pieces of a broad reform campaign that began after the Rampart corruption scandal and has kept the department under federal oversight since 2000.
Bratton and his civilian bosses are eager to get out of the federal consent decree, which calls for some sort of financial disclosure rule for officers in specialized units who frequently handle cash, drugs and other contraband. The issue has proved to be the most contentious sticking point as union and city officials have struggled for years to strike a compromise between officers' privacy rights and the need to satisfy the decree.
The reform is intended to help supervisors detect an officer who is taking bribes or involved in other illegal conduct. Under its terms, about 600 officers would be required to disclose to department officials any outside income, real estate, stocks, other assets and debts every two years. They would also have to reveal the size of their bank accounts and include any holdings they share with family members or business partners. Officers already assigned to the units would be granted a two-year grace period before having to complete the records.
"It's important that we use every tool available to make absolutely sure that even if it's just one officer who is potentially inclined to go down this path, that we do everything within our . . . authority to make sure that doesn't happen," said Commissioner John Mack. "We cannot forget the Rampart incident."
Indeed, the legacy of the Rampart Division scandal hung heavy over the commission's special meeting Thursday. The call for financial disclosure stemmed in part from admissions by a former anti-gang officer that he and his partner routinely stole thousands of dollars in cash and narcotics from gang members and drug dealers. He said there was little scrutiny of what officers did on the streets and that many officers in his unit took advantage of the lack of supervision by beating and framing suspects.
But Thursday, several police officers, union leaders and elected officials questioned whether the disclosure requirement would do anything to improve on audits, polygraph tests and other safeguards against abuse already in place.
"You would have to look at the ebb and flow of money coming in and going. This is just a snapshot. All they are doing is looking at one day, and with that you have no idea what has happened," said Don Brady, a lieutenant in charge of about 40 narcotics officers, some of whom specialize in tracking the assets of drug dealers.
Critics warned that the commission's move has left rank-and-file officers deeply angry and that hundreds may retire or request transfers out of the specialized units instead of submitting to the new rules.
"It has dampened morale," Brady said of the officers in his units. "They really feel like they're not being trusted."
Civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who has been closely involved in the push to reform the LAPD, echoed the opposition to the policy, saying increased supervision of officers was needed instead.
"The commission is caught between a rock and a hard place on this one. It is trying to do what the court wants it to do, whether it's a good idea or not," she said, referring to U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess, who oversees the decree. She said police officers "have a right to be angry. They know this won't do any good and is an infringement on their rights."
Although the vote was unanimous, Commissioner Alan Skobin said he sympathized with the officers' concerns.
"I could not look the officers in the eye and tell them that it will do anything to improve the Los Angeles Police Department, except to hope that it will get us beyond the consent decree," he said. "What we're asking them to do and what we're asking their families to do is a very bitter pill. In fact, we're not asking, we're ordering them."
The scope of the policy goes beyond what is demanded of Bratton in the financial interest forms he must file with the city Ethics Commission. But although Bratton's disclosures are public record, the officers' information would be kept confidential. In response to union officials' concerns that the department would not be able to keep the documents safe, the commission refined the policy Thursday to make clear that the information would be kept locked in Bratton's office until it was periodically destroyed.
The commission's disclosure policy puts the officers on par with many federal law enforcement agents. Every five years, for example, agents in the Drug Enforcement Administration must submit to thorough investigations of their finances, said Special Agent Jose Martinez.
Before Thursday's vote, union President Tim Sands urged commissioners to reconsider a compromise that city, federal and union lawyers agreed to last year but that Judge Feess threw out as insufficient.That deal called in part for the department to conduct frequent sting operations and audits of narcotics and anti-gang officers but did not require across-the-board disclosures.
"Go back to this judge and tell him that we had an agreement," Sands said. "We will protect the rights of our officers. . . . We don't want to go down that road. I am asking you, do not move this order forward."
In response to the commission's action, the union filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court seeking an immediate injunction against the disclosures, contending that they violate state laws and collective bargaining rules that protect officers' privacy rights.
Councilman Jack Weiss, who chairs the council's public safety committee said he would push other council members to take the rare step of voting to supersede the commission and assume jurisdiction over the issue. Such a move would require the support of 10 of the 15 council members. If the council takes that action, it can then vote on whether to veto the commission's plan and force the panel to try again.
"I am skeptical" about the policy, Weiss said. "It's not clear that it will assist in detecting bad cops."
Councilman Dennis Zine, a former LAPD sergeant, said he also opposed the commission's decision but would not support Weiss' effort, which he called a "disingenuous" move targeted at winning the police union's endorsement in Weiss' upcoming run for city attorney.
Weiss could not be reached for comment on Zine's assertion. Lisa Hansen, Weiss' chief of staff, said: "This is not about politics. The council will decide this issue on the merits, but clearly it warrants discussion."