Editorial

Backers of police discipline change should be careful what they wish for

Both the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department may soon make changes to their disciplinary processes — but the proposals for the two agencies are moving in decidedly opposite directions. The sheriff is seeking something more like what the LAPD has while the police union and some self-styled police reformers want something more like the seriously flawed system used to discipline sheriff’s deputies. That phenomenon ought give the City Council at least a modicum of pause before moving ahead with a police discipline measure for the May ballot.

At the heart of the issue is the degree to which civilians should be empowered to uphold or overturn disciplinary decisions made by each department’s top commander (the elected county sheriff and the appointed LAPD chief). For many years, police unions saw civilian participation as an unwanted intrusion into the clubby domain of law enforcement.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League — the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers — adamantly opposed a recommendation by the Christopher Commission in 1991 to include a civilian among the high-ranking officers on the Board of Rights. That’s the panel that rules on the chief’s request for discipline. Voters adopted the measure over the PPL’s objection.

Much to the surprise of union members, however, civilians ended up being more lenient than their sworn law-enforcement counterparts — an outcome echoed in a recent city study. It turned out that Board of Rights’ members drawn from within the department had little tolerance of misbehaving colleagues, who arguably tainted the entire agency. And, on reflection, that stands to reason: As with most law enforcement agencies, the LAPD models its discipline proceedings on military tribunals, which are not known for being gentle with uniformed personnel who defy orders or commit other improper acts.

The civilian added to each Board of Rights to be the public’s eyes, ears and voice was more likely than officers to oppose the chief’s discipline recommendations. The PPL grew to appreciate the civilian presence — to appreciate it so much, in fact, that last year it lobbied the council and Mayor Eric Garcetti to eliminate LAPD personnel from Boards of Rights altogether, in favor of all-civilian boards. Garcetti supports the proposal and the council is expected to vote Wednesday to order city lawyers to start drafting ballot language. 

Up the street, Sheriff Jim McDonnell (a former LAPD second-in-command) is struggling to weed out a subculture of dishonesty that grew under his predecessor and eroded morale in the entire Sheriff’s Department. To his credit, McDonnell has imposed tough penalties on deputies and others for making false statements in police reports and other misconduct.

Under the county’s structure, though, fired sheriff’s personnel can appeal to the all-civilian Civil Service Commission, which also hears appeals from other county employees such as clerks, graphic artists, data analysts and nurses. As McDonnell has fired deputies, the commission has returned many of them to work — in part by relying on the previous, lower discipline standard that was set under then-Sheriff Lee Baca.

That puts McDonnell in the position of trying to raise standards — as the public rightly demands — yet being thwarted by a panel of civilians that compels him to keep paying taxpayer money to deputies he deems unfit to wear a badge, carry a weapon or patrol the streets or jails.

Neither the sheriff’s nor the LAPD’s system is perfect or irredeemable. The LAPD chief must essentially ask permission to fire an officer who he deems unfit to serve — but at least his process acknowledges the different impact on the public of an erring but armed law enforcement officer and an erring clerk or graphic artist.

Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors has belatedly but appropriately ordered proposals for better training of their appointees to the Civil Service Commission. It is possible that reforms in both departments could bring improvements.

It is possible — but not inevitable. The individual adjustments to the county Civil Service Commission, and the details of selection and training of civilian Board of Rights members, may be mundane but are of enormous importance. That’s something that should be kept in mind by a City Council — and a Board of Supervisors — that thrive on campaign contributions from law enforcement unions, and by the voters who count on them to act in the public’s best interest.

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