The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday approved a new set of discipline guidelines that level the harshest punishments on officers who lie, use excessive force, demean women and minorities or are careless with their firearms.
“This is a monumental step forward,” said Commissioner Art Mattox before the panel passed the guidelines on a 4-0 vote.
The overhaul of the department’s disciplinary standards addresses a key issue among reform activists and members of the 1991 Christopher Commission who have contended that the LAPD’s internal discipline should better reflect the severity of an offense.
Before the commission’s action, there were no formal guidelines for what penalties should be imposed, giving department supervisors tremendous leeway in meting out punishment. Decisions were made largely by historical precedent rather than in accordance with any department policy.
The new guidelines, which call for penalties ranging from written reprimands to termination hearings, are not binding but are expected to become the standard by which individual cases are judged.
“This is the culmination of a great deal of work,” said interim Police Chief Bayan Lewis. “This gives our supervisors something to refer back to instead of going on a gut feeling, which is what they have to do now. What we’ve rendered into writing covers a broad spectrum of discipline issues.”
Department officials said the new guidelines are aimed at making sure fair and consistent penalties are handed down to officers found guilty of similar misconduct.
The 10-page document, which was the work of a Police Commission task force comprised of representatives from the LAPD brass, the police officers union, community groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, may be subject to review by the union, authorities said. A union official said there is no opposition to the guidelines that have been established.
“We’ve been asking for something like this for a number of years,” said Hank Hernandez, general counsel of the Police Protective League, which represents more than 9,000 LAPD officers. “This will ensure uniformity and prevent disparate treatment of our officers.”
The Police Commission’s civilian inspector general, Katherine Mader, who helped craft the guidelines, told commissioners that standardized discipline “is critical” because it creates a more credible system in the eyes of the public and the department.
The task force, which had worked on the document for more than a year, singled out four areas of misconduct as the “most serious” misbehavior an officer can commit--actions that could result in an immediate departmental hearing and termination. Those areas, according to the discipline guide, are:
* Dishonesty. Any offense, whether it is on or off duty, will be regarded as “extremely serious.” Misconduct includes providing false information about a personal financial transaction or making a false arrest report.
“For this or any other police department to maintain the confidence of the public, it must be clear to officers that they are expected, above all, to be consistently honest in their personal and public life,” the guidelines state.
* Excessive use of force. “This includes . . . inappropriate spraying of a chemical agent or intentional application of handcuffs in a fashion that causes pain or injury” to a suspect. It is also a “serious breach” for an officer to fail to report a colleague’s misconduct.
* Discourteous behavior toward members of the public and fellow police officers. Offenses include making “derogatory, ethnic or racial remarks, exhibiting racist or sexist behavior or any form of sexual misconduct, including verbal sexual harassment.”
* Abuse of a firearm. Because officers are granted rights to carry firearms “that exceed those accorded members of the public . . . department personnel must, at all times, ensure that this right is never abused. . . . It is the belief of the LAPD that, in all circumstances, firearms and alcohol do not mix.”
According to the guidelines, punishments can range from written reprimands to termination. The severity of the discipline would be based on the nature and circumstances of a violation and whether it was an officer’s first, second or third offense.
The guide divides the scores of misconduct into nearly 30 categories, covering offenses such as alcohol abuse, discourtesy, domestic violence, neglect of duty and conduct unbecoming of an officer.
Punishments have been outlined for misbehavior ranging from failing to provide a business card and inappropriately hanging up on a caller (both call for penalties ranging from a written reprimand to a four-day suspension on the first offense) to driving under the influence of alcohol while off duty (10 days to possible termination), committing a felony domestic violence act (possible termination) and hanging cartoons or photos of a “sexually biased nature” in the workplace (five- to nine-day suspension on the first offense).
The guidelines are not binding and supervisors are expected to consider the nature and circumstances of an offense when deciding what punishment is appropriate. In some cases, the task force concluded, an officer might be better served with counseling or additional training instead of a suspension.
“This information is not only to provide information to command officers who are responsible for administering the disciplinary system, but also to inform all department employees who must understand what is expected of them,” according to the document.
Allan Parachini, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the commission’s approval of the guidelines marked a “historic moment and step” for the LAPD. But he said the effort will be fruitless unless supervisors use it.
“No discipline guide on paper is worth anything unless it is implemented in an intelligent and appropriate way,” he said. “It’s a great start. Now you have to hold your breath, keep your fingers crossed, and hope it works for everyone.”