LAPD Abuse Probes of Its Officers Called Lax
A comprehensive review of the Los Angeles Police Department’s handling of domestic violence allegations against its own officers has found that the department’s internal investigations often “lacked objectivity” and that accused batterers on the force were rarely arrested or prosecuted and often faced only light in-house discipline.
The report was compiled by the Los Angeles Police Commission’s inspector general, who examined the more than 225 domestic violence cases that have been the subject of internal department review from 1990 to early 1997. The study depicts an old-boys network in which officers who were found to have committed acts of domestic violence often did not have it held against them in evaluations or when they sought promotions.
For example, one officer who received a 10-day suspension for pushing and beating a woman with “a closed fist” was later described by his supervisor in an evaluation as an officer who “has consistently displayed a calm and professional demeanor even when dealing with the most highly agitated and stressful situations.”
Another LAPD officer, who had threatened to commit suicide and sought counseling, was described as a “problem-free” employee despite having received a 15-day suspension for slapping his wife.
Inspector General Katherine Mader, who will present her 47-page report to the Police Commission next week, has recommended that the department make sweeping changes in the way it handles domestic violence cases and monitors problem officers.
Several of her 45 recommendations are already being embraced by the department brass, she said, including one that the LAPD form a special unit within the Internal Affairs Division to work exclusively on abuse cases.
Despite the critical assessment of the department’s actions, Mader said in an interview that the department ranks are not filled with domestic abusers.
“The fact is that there are about 32 cases of physical domestic violence a year out of an organization of 12,000 employees,” she said. “The department is hardly filled with batterers. I challenge any organization to investigate their own personnel, as LAPD does, and compare their statistics.”
Mader said she was unable to locate reliable statistics from other police departments to draw any comparisons. Also, she said experts in the field of domestic violence told her statistics on the number of incidents that occur in the general community are not accurate.
The LAPD expects its officers, whether or not they are on duty, not to violate the law and to maintain a positive standard of conduct; thus any incidents of domestic violence, whether or not they rise to a level of chargeable offenses, are subject to investigation by the department.
Mader also praised the LAPD for keeping better records on domestic violence than any of the other law enforcement agencies in the nation that she contacted on the issue.
“We’re not dinosaurs and we’re not ostriches,” said interim Los Angeles Police Chief Bayan Lewis. “We’ll look and see what we have to do to do a better job. I think it’s healthy to have an inspector general come here with new eyes and look at how we do things.”
But Lewis also defended the department, saying the organization’s view of the seriousness of domestic violence has evolved in recent years along with society’s. He said incidents are being treated differently now than they were in the early 1990s.
Mader’s study was prompted by media reports that the department “goes easy” on officers accused of domestic violence. Issues of police and domestic violence have fallen under heightened national scrutiny since passage of a law that bars citizens--including police officers--from carrying firearms if they have been convicted of domestic abuse felonies.
In her report, Mader notes that about 85% of the LAPD’s officers live outside Los Angeles and that about two-thirds of the more than 225 domestic violence cases investigated internally took place outside the LAPD’s jurisdiction in terms of pursuing arrests and prosecutions.
Nonetheless, in cases that occurred within the city’s borders, officers were arrested only 6% of the time, compared with a rate of 16% when other outside police agencies responded to the scene.
“The inference is that the [LAPD] is less willing than outside agencies to make arrests in cases involving its employees,” Mader wrote.
In the report, done at the request of the City Council, Mader also notes that the department has no effective way of tracking officers accused of abuse.
Nearly 30% of the officers who had complaints of domestic violence sustained against them were nonetheless promoted, the report states.
In some cases, department investigators and supervisors seemed to dismiss the seriousness of domestic violence, while placing blame on some of the victims. One police officer’s wife, who locked herself in a garage during a “heated exchange” with her husband, was accused by department investigators of committing “an act of defiance.”
The report found that repeat offenders on the force accounted for 31% of all domestic violence complaints at the department. Some of those officers, according to the report, should have been ordered to undergo counseling and been disciplined more severely. The inspector general characterized the department’s discipline of domestic abuse as “exceedingly light” in many cases.
In one case cited in the report, an officer, who had been drinking in a bar with his wife, was involved in a hit-and-run accident. As they were trying to push their car away from the scene, they argued and the officer struck his wife, breaking her nose. Despite being drunk in public, assaulting his wife, fleeing an accident scene and failing to have his car insured, the officer was suspended for only 10 days.
“Considering the gravity of the allegations, a 10-day suspension was too lenient,” Mader wrote.
Although the most common form of domestic violence involved the assailant’s hands or fists, other weapons were used, including a mop, a ski pole, police weapons, a knife, a checkbook and a cardboard pizza box, the report stated.
According to Mader’s review, the department sustained accusations of domestic violence in about 40% of the cases, handing down punishments ranging from written admonitions to terminations. Additionally, the department referred about 58% of all the internal investigations to prosecutors to be reviewed for possible criminal charges--but in most cases, no charges were filed.
Regardless, she said, “the department should have presented many more internal investigations to Los Angeles prosecuting agencies.”
The report showed that investigations were undertaken against 201 male officers, and that accusations were sustained in 37% of the cases. Investigations were also undertaken against 26 female officers, and sustained in 57% of those cases. In the 21 cases involving civilian LAPD employees, 15 accusations were sustained.
Women’s advocates praised the report, even though they found the information unsettling.
“This confirms everything we’ve suspected for a long time, that [department officials] cover up and protect wife beaters in their ranks,” said Katherine Spillar, the national coordinator of the Feminist Majority.
Spillar said that officers who have been involved in domestic abuse probably won’t be sympathetic to women in the community who call the police for help in spousal abuse situations.
Attorney Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the Police Commission who was also a consultant on the study, called the report “solid and well researched.”
One of the elements of the examination that struck him the most, he said, was the department’s inconsistent punishment of officers found guilty of more than one act of domestic violence.
For example, he said, one officer who was found by the department to have raped his girlfriend received only an “official reprimand.” Later the same year, the officer received another official reprimand after “inserting a 9-millimeter handgun into girlfriend’s vagina without her consent.” The officer was neither arrested nor criminally charged in either incident.
One department official, however, noted that the statute of limitations can sometimes prevent the department from punishing officers any more severely than with official reprimands.
Mader said the LAPD’s “aggressive and innovative investigations of domestic violence committed by members of the public must be extended to its own personnel.”
In addition to forming a specialized unit in the Internal Affairs Division, Mader recommended: arrests be made in every instance where they are legally mandated; officers who have a history of domestic violence be fired; the LAPD form a “Batterers’ Program” to treat problem officers; and sustained allegations be considered in performance reviews.