Steve Soboroff has rounded the bases in L.A. government, from the Harbor Commission to rec and parks, even a run for mayor. He's "Uncle Steve," the booster who practically drove the Endeavour space shuttle to its new home, a businessman who drove the Playa Vista development, chairman of the Weingart Foundation, a Big Brother. Now he's the top man at the L.A. Police Commission, perhaps the most scrutinized of city panels, "the citizens' voice" on policing matters, as its website pledges, tasked to work with and sometimes stand up to the LAPD. Apart from the LAPD wristbands he's handing out far and wide, his first project is lapel video cameras for cops because, in police work, as in so many things, seeing is believing.
FOR THE RECORD:
LAPD shootings: In an Op-Ed interview with Los Angeles Police Commission President Steve Soboroff, Patt Morrison said the LAPD withholds the names of officers connected with any categorical use-of-force incident. Names of officers involved in shootings are not withheld. —
How did you get this gig?
I asked for it. I just popped an email to [Mayor] Eric [Garcetti] saying I will go on the Police Commission if you're interested, and that started it.
Before I wrote that email, I watched [recordings of] commission meetings. I'm a communicator and a problem-solver, and I wanted to make sure [the commission] was my style, or if you just had to be tough and lawyerly. My deal is leave the extremists on both sides out of the picture and work in the middle.
What did you think of those earlier commissions?
It looked to me like, with few exceptions — like Rick Caruso, Bert Boeckmann, Alan Skobin — [it] was very reactive, very "OK, here's what they're giving us and we have to analyze this," versus proactive. I read what the charter says about the Police Commission — it is not a micromanager. It is a board of directors.
I wanted to define myself in this role versus having my involvement be defined [as], oh, just sit there for six months and soak it in. Huh-uh. When I was being considered for the commission, I met with 25 or 26 people. John Mack, who is a god to me, made a list for me of people to talk to: commanders, some rank and file, the inspector general, the Police Protective League. Greg Boyle, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Connie Rice. I did homework. So I felt confident. I felt, this is a natural progression for me.
There were communications issues between the prior city attorney and the department and the prior mayor's office and the department that do not need to be carried on now. So I've been Uncle Steve to both sides, saying you guys need to get together now.
At the commission meeting, we're hearing how great our risk management is [regarding police liability lawsuits]. I said: "The people across the street [at City Hall], it's their money when somebody sues and wins. That comes out of the general fund. Would they say you're really doing well? Because I don't think they would. I'd like you to give this presentation to them and have them give you input, and together we're going to figure this out.
You're getting lapel video cameras, thanks to private donations from people you've known a long time.
The body cameras — they're huge. They're going to save millions [in liability costs]: officers not having to spend hours and hours in court [on lawsuits], paperwork, payouts.
The Times wrote in the spring about the head of internal affairs being replaced. He said he had placed "strategy over penalty" in disciplining officers. Would the commission look at that, and change it if the data suggest change?
Results are the end game, and we will monitor them. From the story, it looks like the chief's personnel moves (which we don't micromanage) were well thought out.
The department withholds the names of every officer connected with any categorical use-of-force incident, and not just those involving guns. Is that the right policy?
There are two sides to all these stories, and there comes a time when the names should be released, but I don't think they should be released too early. Officer X used his baton — someone said he overused it. Should that be in the paper without going through any due process, without the inspector general, without looking at [video]? No, I don't think so.
Use of force is a sensitive issue.
In the city of L.A., there are about 500 people arrested a day. That's not a lot, when you look at other big cities. Of those 500, five have some sort of use of force. Five out of 500. So there's 495 peaceful arrests, which means officers are doing their job perfectly. Every four days, one of those five is a categorical use of force, which will ultimately come to the commission, where somebody makes a complaint.
The department has its investigation, the inspector general does his own analysis — we get 360 [degree input]. That process is a good process, a relatively transparent process. If I was going to take the process apart and try to put it back together, I'd do the same.
You opposed the federal consent decree for the LAPD. Do you feel differently about it now?
Absolutely. I opposed it because it had never worked before, and I don't know whether it's ever worked since, but it sure worked here. It was fantastic. They've done a great job reforming. People from all over the country are coming in and seeing how it's done.
I'm here to make it better, keep [it] moving forward. The on-body cameras, I'm going to define myself with this issue. They were going to take 18 years? I'm going to do it in 18 months. I may fail, but if I fail, it's not because I didn't try.
No one on the commission has a law enforcement background. Is that a problem?
It puts the onus on us to get out there and meet and learn. [The commissioners ] are fast learners. Many times you're better off having people who are willing to be open instead of people who always have preconceived notions: "Based on my 38 years in law experience, you're an idiot." That's no good.
I'm going to announce 30 different issues and put two commissioners on each. I'm going to take the four [police] bureaus, and each commissioner is going to specialize in one bureau and we'll rotate. We'll go into the community. Instead of asking people to come to commission meetings, I'm going to take the full commission to every council district in Eric's first term, which is not easy, but we're still going to do it.
Do you think the commission should be a full-time job?
No. I think you're better off having people who have other life experiences they're doing at the same time. It helps you keep your balance.
Your sister Lucy was schizophrenic. The LAPD arrests people, who go into the county jail, which Sheriff Lee Baca described as the biggest mental health facility in the country. Are dealings with the mentally ill on your list of 30?
Sure. So are foster kids. There are certain people who statistically don't have a chance. My question to everybody is, "Are you doing all you can? What can you do to help the homeless, the mentally ill?" Don't just start complaining to me. People always say, "What will you do about my parking ticket?" I always say to write my initials in the upper-right-hand corner, then send in double the fine and say you want the balance to go to the Police Foundation, and shame on you for asking.
What did getting Endeavour to and through L.A. mean to you?
A million and a half people were there. There wasn't one arrest. You had Crips and Bloods standing next to each other [along the route]. We thought Endeavour was the ultimate tagging [opportunity]. We were afraid of that, we were afraid of terrorism, vandalism, and the message in the streets was let's all go out and celebrate this. To me it was the proudest moment in L.A., including the Olympic Games.
You had a brief, intense spell as Dodgers vice chairman under Frank McCourt. How do things look now?
The new ownership is wonderful. They're winning. It's a fun place to go. It's unfortunate that you have to pay to see them on TV now — I think that's a big mess — but this is the best ownership in a long time.¿
What about the LAPD's security relationship with the Dodgers?
It should be constantly reassessed from scratch, season by season, week by week. There are twice as many people going to games now. They need to have great communications with our department so our guys can say, "Hey, I'm a little worried about this or that." Same thing with AEG [at Staples Center]. And those relationships are being established.
Many Angelenos' only contact with official L.A. is the police. And a lot of them think their neighborhoods are under-patrolled.
Unless there's a lot of crime, they are under-patrolled. The system now works brilliantly in using the officers efficiently where they're needed. If you're fortunate enough to live in an area that has [less] crime, your response time is going to be a bit longer if your neighbor's dog is barking. Don't talk to me about that; talk to me about what you can do. I'll give you 20 things you can do to embrace the LAPD and help this be a better place for everybody.
What's your relationship with Chief Beck?
Good. He's a fantastic guy, smart guy. He talks from experience, he talks from compassion. I told him I was going to teach him how to fundraise. He laughed. He and I are a good match, where Caruso and Bratton were a good match.
Edited and excerpted from a taped transcript.