Success of Reforms Varies at LAPD, Sheriff's Dept.


It was five years ago that Los Angeles police officers beat Rodney G. King and propelled Southern California law enforcement agencies into the most turbulent reform era of their histories.

But interviews with key participants and documents from both departments reveal that the results at the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department have been mixed and in many ways unsatisfying, with gains in some areas matched by gaps and disappointments in others. In general, the Sheriff's Department has made faster progress, particularly in the area of holding down taxpayer payouts for excessive-force lawsuits.

In the wake of the King beating, reformers seeking to rein in racism, curb brutality and improve management came up with hundreds of individual recommendations for the LAPD and Sheriff's Department. These ranged from the creation of cultural sensitivity courses to the strengthening of systems for identifying and rooting out problem officers.

Some of the proposed reforms meant tinkering with existing systems; others required sea changes in the operations of two of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country. At the core, however, the goals were simple: to reduce complaints of excessive force, to repair damaged relations between police and minority communities and, in the case of the LAPD, to strengthen civilian control of the Police Department.

At the LAPD, a central goal was achieved quickly. The department's chief, once protected from political threats to his job, now is limited to two five-year terms of office and may be hired and fired by the civilian Police Commission.

Some reform advocates believe that strengthening of civilian control was undermined last year, however, when the City Council overrode the Police Commission in its attempt to discipline Police Chief Willie L. Williams. Others applaud the LAPD's rhetorical embrace of community-based policing, but worry that spread of the philosophy has been spotty.

In the area of excessive force--highlighted by the grim videotaped image of police officers beating King into submission on March 3, 1991--claims against officers are down significantly at both agencies, but the Sheriff's Department is arresting more people and the LAPD fewer despite hiring additional officers. And though a decline in reported crime may explain some of that dip, it does not explain why arrests would increase in Los Angeles County even as they decreased in the city.

Increasingly, city police officers say they avoid confronting suspects in order to skip situations that could generate complaints. The baton--once widely wielded and made notorious by the King beating--is now known as the "indictment stick." Some officers say they go so far as to leave it in their cars when approaching suspects, a violation of policy.

"Somebody's not working," said Police Commissioner Edith R. Perez, who chairs the board's task force on use-of-force reforms. "Somebody's not going after that radio call fast enough. And it's not because they don't want to. It's because they are not feeling the support of the department behind them."

What's more, one surprising conclusion about the Los Angeles police-reform years is that despite more dollars and attention, the LAPD has lagged behind the Sheriff's Department in curbing lawsuits that grow out of allegedly abusive officer conduct in the field.

In 1995, the city of Los Angeles paid out $13.6 million in police litigation cases. That is $1.1 million less than in 1991, the year that the King beating riveted national attention on the Police Department and the Christopher Commission--named for its chairman, Warren Christopher--produced its sweeping recommendations for reform.

At the Sheriff's Department, the litigation numbers are far more striking. Total judgments and settlements have dropped from $26.2 million in 1991 to $11.9 million last fiscal year. Complaints of excessive force also have plummeted since the Kolts Commission produced its analysis of the county law enforcement agency.

"The trends are encouraging," wrote lawyer Merrick J. Bobb, who monitors Sheriff's Department reforms and recently has been brought in as a consultant to produce similar analyses of the LAPD. "Los Angeles County and its taxpayers have saved money and are beginning to realize the benefits of reduced risk on the patrol side that has followed the department's implementation of Kolts."

Judgment and settlement figures can be difficult indicators to rely upon, since lawsuits often only come to fruition years after the alleged improper conduct. But the payout numbers are supported by other measures as well. The county counsel has seen its Sheriff's Department caseload drop from 811 cases in 1992 to 288 last year; of the current cases, fewer than 200 involve allegations of improper force by deputies. Although fewer legal claims are being filed against the LAPD, the city attorney continues to carry between 450 and 500 LAPD-related cases.

Though the LAPD has struggled in many respects, it has made significant strides in at least one area: The Police Department today is a more diverse department than it was in 1991. Its record far surpasses that of the Sheriff's Department, which has not changed its complexion much during the last five years and which lags behind its cross-town rival in terms of women and minorities on the payroll.

Computer Tracking

Allegations of excessive force sparked the reform efforts of the early 1990s. And one of the prime tools suggested for fighting it was the computer.

In their reports, the Kolts and Christopher commissions both recommended that the law enforcement agencies install tracking systems to provide supervisors with early warnings about potentially problem officers, those who attracted a disproportionate share of citizen complaints or lawsuits.

Five years later, the LAPD system still is rudimentary. Commanding officers in a few areas can call up some files on a computer, but most supervisors do not have access to the system. Information in the database, originally called OBITS but now known by the friendlier-sounding moniker TEAMS, also remains sketchy.

"It has been painfully slow to get up and running," Police Commissioner Raymond C. Fisher said. "They've made a decent start, but they've got a long ways to go."

At the Sheriff's Department, the officer-tracking system admittedly needs improvement. But many supervisors already can use it. Assistant Sheriff Michael E. Graham can glimpse a shorthand index of any deputy's personnel record merely by typing in the employee's name.

Graham and other high-ranking sheriff's officials also can look for trends: deputies who went for long periods without any accusations of excessive force and suddenly were confronted with several; stations where force seems unusually high; officers who have been under pressure to hold down the number of bites their police dogs inflict.

"You have to look at all your people all of the time," said Graham, whose leadership role in spearheading the adoption of the Kolts reforms has won him high praise in and around the Sheriff's Department. "A watch commander can say: 'I've got a guy out in the field, and he's got a problem.' "

Sheriff 'Roll-Outs'

In August 1993, the Sheriff's Department began a "roll-out" program that sent a variety of department officials to the scene of serious uses of force. Any time a suspect is shot or killed, struck in the head with a baton or sent to the hospital for any reason, representatives of the department's Internal Affairs Bureau, its Risk Management Bureau and its Training Bureau are required to roll to the scene. The same is true any time deputies use force to break up a large party.

All those units are gathered together under a single division, reporting through a single chain of command. The idea: to see that department policies were followed, to question whether better training might have prevented the need for force and to protect the county from lawsuits.

Police officers rarely like to be second-guessed, and deputies at first were wary.

"Initially," said Lt. Dennis H. Burns, who heads the civil litigation unit of the Risk Management Bureau, "I think we were resented."

But recent court decisions have held that officers may be found personally liable for punitive damages. Mindful that their personal assets could be on the line, deputies have warmed to the idea that department officials are not only searching for possible wrongdoing but are helping protect the county and its officers from lawsuits.

Outside the Jail Division, fewer new lawsuits are being filed against the department. The claims that are being filed are generally for less serious uses of force. And the cost to taxpayers, at least for cases filed since the reform efforts began, has dropped precipitously.

Active force-related lawsuits being handled by the county counsel's office have dropped. Payouts in judgments and settlements are down by more than half. Total use-of-force incidents involving patrol deputies fell from 1,700 in 1994 to 1,400 in 1995. And all of those indicators fell even as arrests increased.

Still, some people question whether the numbers add up to true reform--or just provide cover for deputies conducting business as usual.

"Even if the Sheriff's Department has reduced the frequency of violations, nevertheless the supervision is so poor, the problems will reoccur," said Hugh Manes, a leading plaintiffs' lawyer and frequent critic of the department. "I have seen no evidence of a desire to improve."

The use-of-force numbers for LAPD are more mixed than those at the Sheriff's Department. Complaints are down dramatically at the Police Department--unauthorized uses of force have dropped from 383 in 1992 to 140 last year--but payouts in settlements and judgments have dropped only slightly.

Those numbers are accompanied by a decline in arrests, so it is difficult to say whether LAPD officers are using force more effectively or merely are confronting fewer suspects.

"Officers just are not making discretionary arrests like they used to," said Cliff Ruff, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers. "They're not going to go out there and stick their necks on the line. Why should they?"

Building Diversity

Because the King beating and the 1992 riots highlighted profound antagonism between Los Angeles' law enforcement agencies and many African Americans, reform efforts included forceful calls for those agencies to diversify.

In that area, the LAPD's record is the source of considerable department pride. White males, once the universal face of the LAPD, today no longer represent a majority of its officers and civilian employees. The chief, Williams, is black, as is his chief of staff.

Latinos have been slower to move up the ranks, and hiring of Asian officers remains a frustrating problem for a department trying to mend fences with the city's Asian communities. Still, women are beginning to reach the department's upper levels, and at the bottom of the LAPD, new hires increasingly are representative of the city from which they are drawn.

"I have been encouraged that there does in fact appear to be progress in the integration of the police force," Fisher said. One recent Friday, Fisher toured the city's police stations. At several, he found women in charge of the night watch and minority officers at work throughout the ranks.

The story is far less compelling across town, where sheriff's officials say they have been hampered by budget cutbacks that have curtailed new hiring. One result: Women and minorities are barely better represented in the Sheriff's Department today than they were in the early 1990s.

The latest update by attorney Bobb and his staff on the progress of Sheriff's Department reforms chastised department officials for not doing more to encourage diversity.

"The department has proven itself highly capable of rapid progress when it sets its sights and puts can-do people in charge," the report said. "It's high time that the same initiative be shown on issues involving women and minorities."

Tale of Two Leaders

Affirmative action issues notwithstanding, the Sheriff's Department's record generally has drawn praise.

Key to its relative success, say department officials and others, is the smooth working relationship between Sheriff Sherman Block and his top staff. Block is an elected official who has held office since 1982. Assistant Sheriff Graham describes him as "a successful politician and a skilled administrator" who knows how to negotiate the county's tight-budget politics.

In contrast, Williams is a relative newcomer to Los Angeles whose relations with his command staff are tenuous and whose connection to the city's power structure is limited. His department has been buffeted by scandal after scandal. Some of his officers respect him, but others privately mock him. All of that has made it harder for Williams to commandingly press for reform.

The Sheriff's Department, meanwhile, has benefited from sustained monitoring by Bobb and his staff. They provide regular updates on Sheriff's Department progress--updates that sheriff's officials concede they await with anxiety.

At the LAPD, the progress of reform has been tracked more sporadically. At first, the department monitored itself and reported to the Police Commission. Eventually, the commission began doing that work, and it recently launched a series of task forces to produce a comprehensive update on the progress. To assist, the commission has hired Bobb and another attorney, who are laying the groundwork for the board to hire its own inspector general.

In April, the commission intends to release its first comprehensive look at the status of reform. Bobb is helping draft that report, similar to his regular updates on the Sheriff's Department.

Finally, there continues to be resistance to reform, commissioners and others say. Some officers balked at cultural sensitivity training, but the commission insisted. Williams objected to the commission assuming control of investigating discrimination and harassment complaints; the commission has persisted.

Fisher, who served on the Christopher Commission and now is a member of the Police Commission, said he was heartened by the early adoption of some reforms, but is disappointed that the process has not gone further.

"It has been less than I would have hoped," he conceded.

Police Commission President Deirdre Hill agreed, but said she and her colleagues remain committed to completing the process begun five years ago, when the King beating was fresh in the city's consciousness and the demand for change was strong.

"I still often get the sense that many in the department are hoping that the reform effort will go away with time," she said. "It is only persistence that will prevail."


Life goes on for George Holliday, the man who videotaped the Rodney King beating. B1


Reform or Retrenchment


The reform efforts launched in the early 1990s took aim in part at the soaring cost of police litigation at both the city and county levels. In the years since the Rodney G. King beating, the sheriff's department and the LAPD have compiled significantly divergent records. Although many cases date back to before the King incident, the Sheriff's Department has won praise for holding down payouts in recent years.

Total Judgments and Settlements

Sheriff's Department*

1991: $26.2 million

1992: $13.5 million

1993: $15.0 million

1994: $11.9 million

* Fiscal years


1991: $14.7 million

1992: $19.7 million

1993: $10.7 million

1994: $8.8 million

1995: $13.6 million


During the same period, both departments have strived to become more diverse places. Again, however, the results show that one has had far greater success than the other. In this case, it is the LAPD, which has been allowed to hire record numbers of new officers in recent years, that has posted the superior record. There have been almost no diversity gains in the sheriff's department.

Racial and Gender Breakdown

Sheriff's Department

Male: 86.8%

Female: 13.1%

White: 69%

African American: 9.2%

Latino: 18.9%

Asian American: 2.2%


Male: 83%

Female: 17%

White: 52.4%

African American: 14.5%

Latino: 27.7%

Asian American: 4%

Note: Sheriff's Department numbers are as of Feb. 1996; LAPD's are as of Dec. 1995.

Sources: LAPD and Sheriff's Department personnel documents, 5th Semiannual Report by Special Counsel Merrick J. Bobb on the Sheriff's Department, city and county attorney litigation reports.

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