The Los Angeles Police Commission has failed to conduct yearly audits of sensitive Police Department intelligence files that were mandated in response to a political spying scandal several years ago, officials said Thursday.
The last audit of the secret files in the Anti-Terrorist Division covered 1988, despite the court-approved settlement of a lawsuit that required annual reviews by the civilian commission, records and interviews show.
"They are behind. . . . My understanding is it is a manpower problem," said Byron Boeckman, an assistant city attorney who advises the commission.
News of the lagging oversight comes amid a burst of allegations that police maintain secret political files and have intimidated some elected officials in the aftermath of the Rodney G. King beating.
Police Chief Daryl F. Gates has strongly denied that his department maintains files on public figures. And Police Department critics have not substantiated recent assertions that police have used potentially embarrassing personal information to shore up political support, particularly among City Council members.
Nonetheless, the allegations repeatedly have surfaced in recent weeks at anti-Gates news conferences and during public meetings of the Police Commission, the City Council and the independent Christopher Commission, which is investigating the Police Department.
"In light of all these different allegations (growing out of the King controversy) it is even more essential to have those audits," said civil liberties attorney Paul Hoffman, who negotiated a 1984 court settlement with the city that required the yearly intelligence file reviews.
Hoffman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he is "really concerned that we don't have audits for '89 and '90." He said he expects to go to court soon to compel the Police Commission to complete the reviews in a timely manner.
ACLU Executive Director Ramona Ripston, a leading Gates' critic, said the Police Commission's "failure to have done this gives impetus to the concern that maybe there has been spying on private groups, private citizens and politicians."
Newly appointed Police Commission member Michael Yamaki said turnover and turmoil on the Police Commission, which is appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley, have exacerbated delays in completing the audits. "I think everyone is concerned with it," he said. "But the entire focus on Rodney King has stifled the Police Commission to the point we not are not doing things we should be doing."
So far, a catch-up audit covering the last 2 1/2 years of Anti-Terrorist Division files has turned up no information on city political figures, said a Police Commission staff member who spoke on condition of anonymity. The staff member said it would take at least several weeks to complete the audit.
The audits include unannounced visits to the Anti-Terrorist Division office, spot checks of desks, briefcases and filing cabinets, as well as a review of hundreds of files maintained by the unit, the staff member said. A confidential audit report is prepared for Police Commission review, the staff member said, while a censored version is given to the City Council and the public.
Commission members may personally review intelligence files, although that has not occurred in recent years. Recently appointed Police Commissioner Stanley Sheinbaum, a civil liberties activist, has agreed to oversee completion of the current audit, Yamaki said, and "he looks pretty excited about doing it." Sheinbaum could not be reached for comment.
The audits are mandated in the settlement of a lawsuit filed in the early 1980s by a coalition of community groups, which learned that the Police Department's old Public Disorder and Intelligence Division (PDID) infiltrated their organizations and spied on liberal political activists.
Later disclosures in press investigations and court records showed that PDID officers also had accumulated files on the political backgrounds and activities of city officials, including Bradley, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky and police commissioners.
The full content and extent of the files has never been revealed, but the PDID was overhauled and renamed the Anti-Terrorist Division as a result of the scandal. Its activities and file-keeping authority were sharply restricted, and the Police Commission agreed to closely monitor the unit to discourage misuse of sensitive information.
The most recent audit, in 1988, found only minor, administrative problems with file keeping, according to the publicly released report.
The Anti-Terrorist Division is the only Police Department intelligence unit regularly audited by the Police Commission, even though the commission has the authority to audit any area of the department it chooses. Other intelligence units that collect highly sensitive information and report regularly to the police chief include Organized Crime Intelligence, Administrative Vice and Administrative Narcotics, which operate out of police headquarters.
Hoffman said the narrow scope of the annual audit is viewed as a "big problem" by groups concerned about possible police spying.
Boeckman, the Police Commission attorney, said the commission has not audited other intelligence sections because commissioners have been satisfied that those units are conducting themselves properly.
"There never has been any suggestion that those entities, in any way, shape or form, have taken up (political intelligence) duties comparable, even remotely comparable, to the old (PDID) functions," he said.