Seldom has an effort to alter Los Angeles’ governing blueprint been as clever and underhanded as Charter Amendment C, a little-noticed measure on the little-noticed May 16 city ballot that would change how police officers are disciplined for misconduct. Seldom have city officials been so sly in their effort to slip something so noxious past L.A. voters.
After the November presidential election, the March city election and an April special election to fill a key congressional seat, Los Angeles is election-weary, and voters may be prone to let this one go by (and that was surely the City Council’s point in scheduling this vote when it did). But it’s important. Voters should request their vote-by-mail ballots or plan to show up at the polls in three weeks and vote No on Charter Amendment C.
The subject matter is the three-member panels, called Boards of Rights, that determine whether LAPD officers have committed serious misconduct and ought to be fired or otherwise disciplined. A little down in the weeds at first blush, perhaps, but the structure of those panels goes to the heart of how police should be held accountable for dishonesty, bad shootings or other improper behavior — a subject of nationwide interest with a particularly difficult history in Los Angeles.
Since voters adopted landmark reforms 25 years ago — following the videotaped LAPD beating of Rodney King and the resulting Christopher Commission hearings and recommendations — those panels have consisted of two LAPD command staff of the rank of captain or above, and one civilian picked from a pool assembled by the Police Commission’s executive director.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the police officers’ union, once strongly resisted civilian participation. What do outsiders know of the dangers that officers face in the field? But the union quickly discovered that civilians ruled in favor of accused officers more often than did their captains and commanders, and now it wants officers to be able to choose between traditional boards and all-civilian boards. In fact, last year, it sued the city in an effort to win that change.
With the suit (and elections for half the City Council) pending, the council voted to put Charter Amendment C on the ballot. In a laughably upside-down approach, Council President Herb Wesson promised a series of hearings on police discipline — after the measure passed.
That’s a little like taking your algebra finals and then studying for them afterward. It’s a lot like — in fact, it is exactly like — amending the Constitution, and then asking whether it needed to be changed in the first place, and if so, how.
In fact, there is precious little evidence that there is anything wrong with the current discipline process, other than that officers and their union don’t like it. The union argues that the chief might pressure his captains and commanders to be tougher on officers he has accused of misconduct, but voters should require actual findings that those commanders suffered retaliation before being asked to overhaul the discipline system.
The charter amendment would leave the selection of civilians — who is eligible, how the pool is chosen — to the City Council. Will the pool be stocked with retired police officers? We don’t know. Will it be filled by police reformers or critics from Black Lives Matter? We don’t know — although the police union seems confident that the council will craft the selection process to its satisfaction.
That’s why, despite assertions in campaign brochures that Charter Amendment C would create a “civilian review board,” implying that it would operate like those in other cities and which reform advocates here have long sought, it would do no such thing. That’s why most reform advocates strongly oppose the measure. They see it for what it is: a sleight of hand that gives the appearance of civilian oversight while actually giving the union just what it wants.
But the sneakiest part of the measure is the May 16 ballot itself. There are runoffs in two council districts and two school board districts, but otherwise Charter Amendment C is the only thing on the ballot, so few voters — other than those rallied by the Police Protective League and city politicians that crave the union’s support — are expected to bother. Voters can, and should, resist that cynical tactic and the ill-considered change in police discipline by voting “No.”