If the Los Angeles City Council really has come up with a better, fairer police discipline system, why doesn’t Charter Amendment C on the May 16 ballot ask voters simply to adopt it? Why does the measure instead offer police officers who are accused of misconduct a choice between the current, supposedly discredited Board of Rights — a review panel composed of two members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s command staff and one civilian — and a new all-civilian board?
The Police Protective League (the police officers’ union) and its City Hall supporters — Mayor Eric Garcetti and the council — argue that their proposal increases civilian oversight of the police. If that’s the case, why do the city’s most outspoken advocates of better civilian oversight — the Community Coalition, Black Lives Matter, the Los Angeles Community Action Network, the ACLU of Southern California — so adamantly oppose Charter Amendment C?
Because they see it for the ruse that it is. The measure wouldn’t change what the boards do — they hear appeals of the chief’s disciplinary actions, with the power to reduce but not increase recommended punishments. It would just change who’s on them.
Charter Amendment C was hand-crafted by the union, whose job is to seek better terms of employment and policies for its members. The union is free to do these things — but it has developed its political clout to such an extent that city officials now go to bat for it.
Local leaders weren’t always so deferential. For example, a decade ago, council members and then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vocally backed legislation to reopen police discipline hearings to the public, arguing correctly that the secrecy prevented the public from seeing whether and how cops who violate policy are held accountable. But police unions around the state successfully lobbied Sacramento to keep discipline hearings closed.
There was another attempt last year to make police proceedings and records public, as they had once been. This time, though, instead of advocating vocally for passage, most of L.A.’s elected officials were as silent as the grave.
Charter Amendment C is yet another mark of how far the political establishment has moved from its former respectful skepticism of police unions to acquiescence. Civilians have been shown to side with officers in discipline proceedings more often than do the police command staff who currently makes up the majority of each Board of Rights, so the union, the mayor and the council are offering a measure that would allow officers to present their cases to only civilians. Because proceedings would continue to be held in secret, the public would continue to be kept largely in the dark.
Over two decades, there have been many thoughtful, independent analysts who agreed with the union that the current Board of Rights system should be replaced — but who rejected all-civilian panels. The Rampart Independent Review Panel, for example, urged the city to limit the Board of Rights to fact-finding — did the officer truly commit misconduct? — and leave actual punishment decisions to the chief, who would have to follow guidelines adopted by the Police Commission.
Other proposals have included making the Police Commission itself a true civilian review board by allowing it to make discipline decisions. These and other suggested reforms are well considered and should be among the options presented to voters or the council.
They are not on the May 16 ballot, because Charter Amendment C is not one of those thoughtful proposals that an independent panel arrived at following a process of interviews, testimony and study. It is the result of private talks between top city officials and the Police Protective League. Union leaders surely see the advantage to their members of being able to choose among differently formatted Boards of Rights. If some future council changes the criteria for selecting civilian members to make them tougher on accused officers, those officers would still be able to select a board without a civilian majority.
It’s not as though the Boards of Rights are inordinately tough on officers. They reject more than half of the chief’s requests for discipline.
Police officers have a constitutional right not to be fired or otherwise punished on a whim or out of personal animus or political pressure. They are entitled to an appeals system that offers due process, and they ought to have a system they perceive to be fair. What they will get, if Charter Amendment C passes, is an unwarranted choice of arbiters and a chance to further undermine the chief’s ability to run his department, as well as the public’s ability to hold him accountable. Voters should say no to Charter Amendment C.