Police Panel Calls for Sex Harassment, Bias Unit : LAPD: A committee recommends an independent division to investigate internal accusations. Commission vote is delayed so Williams can study the plan.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In response to growing complaints about sexual harassment and discrimination within the Los Angeles Police Department, the Police Commission is considering the creation of a unit that would strip the LAPD of primary responsibility for investigating those charges.

Under a proposal painstakingly drafted by an ad hoc committee consisting of commission members Deirdre Hill and Art Mattox, the unit proposed Tuesday would be responsible for investigating all discrimination and harassment complaints.

It would be housed outside any existing LAPD facility--a move intended to reassure employees making complaints that they would not be subject to retaliation and that their complaints would be treated confidentially.

A scheduled vote on the proposed unit was delayed for a week Tuesday after Police Chief Willie L. Williams asked the commission for more time to study the proposal and Asst. City Atty. Byron R. Boeckman advised the panel that the public may not have been given adequate notice of the vote as required by state law.

Williams said he supported creating the unit, but he took exception to removing it from the day-to-day operation of the department.

"It sends a chilling message to the 10,000 employees of the department when you say: 'None of you can be trusted to conduct an investigation,' " he said.

Under the proposal, Williams would be given authority to review any disciplinary action recommended against a department employee. But initial investigative responsibility for all complaints of harassment and racial and sexual discrimination would lie with the new unit, which would report to the Police Commission--not the Police Department.

The proposed unit represents a compromise between advocates of placing the entire process within the Police Department and those who argue that it should be completely independent of the LAPD.

"I feel very strongly that we need to create this unit in the Police Commission," commission President Enrique Hernandez Jr. said at Tuesday's meeting, adding that he would not want that misinterpreted as distrust of department employees.

Williams argued that the public and Police Department employees "expect the chief to know about complaints and to do something right away." Taking the unit out of the department's chain of command "flies in the face of the responsibility and accountability" the public expects from the department's command staff, he said.

Hill disagreed, saying the commission must play a role in establishing what the standards of the department will be. Moreover, she said, the department focuses on discipline while the new unit will pay more attention to the needs of victims of discrimination and harassment.

Mattox reminded Williams that under the committee's proposal he would be notified of any complaints.

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Commission member Rabbi Gary Greenebaum noted that "the department is changing, but it has not yet completed its change. Until that time, we need to provide some sort of sanctuary where people feel comfortable coming forward."

The new unit would have 13 staffers, including one police officer, and an annual budget of $662,000 if it is approved and fully funded by the City Council. The proposal also recommends that cases referred to Internal Affairs be assigned two investigators.

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg told the commission that she thinks the council wants the unit established and that she will take personal responsibility for initiating discussions about funding.

The proposed unit would represent the LAPD's most serious commitment of resources to rooting out sexual harassment and discrimination within its ranks and would mark the Police Commission's most assertive step toward having its staff investigate internal LAPD complaints.

The report, presented to the full commission Tuesday, states that the ad hoc committee's "response to recurring criticism of the present system is to offer a process that provides for appropriate consideration of the victim by shifting the focus of the investigation from discipline to compliance with city and department policies and the tenets of employment discrimination law."

Creation of the unit has been widely discussed since early this year, when the LAPD embarked on an aggressive attempt to root out sexual harassment at one of its police stations and news reports documented an array of harassment and discrimination complaints arising from the ranks. But the commission's recommended unit differs in important respects from one outlined by Williams in previous interviews and public statements.

Most significantly, Williams had suggested that any new investigative unit needed to report to him in order to tackle delicate personnel issues raised by sexual harassment and discrimination complaints. The commission, backed by many council members and outside observers who worried that a new unit within the LAPD would lack credibility, chose a different course.

Under the commission proposal, Williams would retain the ability to discipline any department employee who was found guilty of discrimination or harassment. But investigation of those complaints would rest with the commission unit; LAPD Internal Affairs investigators would only handle those cases referred to them by the unit.

Although the unit's structure would differ from Williams' proposal, commissioners praised the chief for his dedication to tackling harassment and said they believed the unit would effectively handle that task.

"We've been lucky to have a chief of police who has taken aggressive steps to say that sexual harassment will not be tolerated," Hill said. "The practical realities of this issue are that the unit has to be responsive and has to be trusted."

Hill said she hopes the council will support the unit and approve funding for it quickly. If that happens, she said, the department could bring a consultant on board within a month to begin laying the groundwork for establishing the unit.

That could clear the way for the unit to be up and running within six months, Hill said.

Commissioners are sensitive to the city's formidable budget problems, Hill and others said, but also noted that lawsuits alleging discrimination and harassment have been costing the city increasingly large sums to defend and settle in recent years. By comparison, Hill added, the unit is a relative bargain.

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