Can an appropriately independent and aggressive Police Commission appoint an appropriately independent inspector general capable of navigating the politics of the job?
Judging by Katherine Mader’s experience, probably not. Last week, she announced her resignation as inspector general, reportedly just one step ahead of her ouster by the commission, the civilian panel that is, by law, the head of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Why it happened this way says as much about the invisible hand of the city’s political culture as it does about the personalities involved. When the political and business establishment believes that the Police Department is doing its job well, and crime statistics bear this out, will it encourage rigorous oversight of its officers? Mader not only faced structural obstacles in doing her job, she had to operate in a climate more akin to the 1950s than to that created by the beating of Rodney G. King by LAPD officers in 1991. The handwriting was on the wall from the beginning.
Mader was appointed inspector general in mid-1996, five years after the Christopher Commission recommended such a position in its 1991 report. From the LAPD’s viewpoint, she brought some baggage to the job: Mader previously had prosecuted police officers, among other public officials, while a member of the L.A. County district attorney’s office. She also had legally defended some notably unsavory clients, a fact that didn’t endear her to many cops, either.
No surprise, then, that Mader and Police Department management, lacking any guiding precedent, immediately disagreed on her role and the scope of her authority. There was no public indication that the Police Commission, the only entity with the authority to do so, ever stepped in to clarify matters. Only recently did the current commission president, Edith Perez, issue a memorandum on the subject, and that one significantly restricted Mader’s authority to investigate police misconduct and placed her under the supervision of the commission’s newly hired executive director, Joseph A. Gunn. When the other commissioners disavowed the memo, Perez said it had been written by Gunn and that its intent had been misunderstood.
Mader, department brass and some commissioners also clashed personally. Critics often described Mader as unnecessarily confrontational and not a team player. The quality of her work was assailed. Mader and her supporters questioned the timing of these complaints. No such criticisms were raised when police commissioners were using her reports to buttress their case against former Chief Willie L. Williams. Furthermore, an independent inspector general, by definition, is not a “team” player.
Officially, the political leadership of Los Angeles is committed to the implementation of the Christopher Commission recommendations on police reform. Employment of a full-time inspector general to audit the Police Department’s internal disciplinary system for the part-time Police Commission is a keystone of the police-discipline recommendations. Why, then, more than seven years after the Christopher Commission folded its tent and moved on, is the inspector-general concept essentially back at square one?
Two mayors, the City Council and several different collections of police commissioners have failed to make this important concept a reality.
The current mayor, Richard Riordan, has publicly backed police reform, as did his predecessor, the late Tom Bradley. It is interesting to note, however, whom Riordan turns to for advice on police matters.
One of the mayor’s earliest appointments to a deputy-mayor position, and still serving in that capacity, is William C. Violante, former president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents the police rank and file. Despite voicing support for some police reforms, the League was, and is, critical of the Christopher Commission report, generally, and of the many recommendations dealing with officer misconduct and discipline, specifically.
More recently, retired police commander Gunn surfaced as a mayoral confidant and, as deputy mayor, was liaison between the mayor’s office and the Police Commission. Gunn distinguished himself early in his police career when, as a patrolman, he exposed serious corruption among ranking members of his vice-enforcement detail. He was later wounded in an on-duty confrontation with a shotgun-wielding suspect. Gunn advanced rapidly through the ranks and became a favorite of then-Chief Ed Davis. As a commander, Gunn lobbied the City Council and state Legislature on behalf of the department and its chief. By most accounts, he was quite the lobbyist. Gunn left the department in 1979, soon after Davis retired.
Leaving when he did, Gunn missed the chaotic years of diminishing Police Department effectiveness and declining public respect for the police, which culminated in the 1992 riots. He also wasn’t around during the agonizing and painful reappraisal of the department and its leadership by the Christopher Commission and the ensuing adoption of reforms.
Gunn, reportedly, is one of Mader’s more influential detractors.
The mayor’s police confidants, then, are probably not part of Mader’s constituency. Nor, it seems, is the City Council a part. Many council members have held hearings and otherwise expressed interest in police reform. As a body, the council has pronounced itself in support of the Christopher Commission recommendations. Yet, its recent actions may belie its real feelings about police reform. In the past, the council did not hesitate to assert its authority over the Police Commission when members disagreed with a commission decision. For example, it reversed the commission’s ouster of Williams. But, recently, the council has been more the team player. For example, it approved a salary adjustment for Gunn after he was chosen executive director, despite the fact that the commission had promised Gunn the pay raise but lacked the authority to do so.
Over the years, police commissions, as well as individual commissioners, have followed a definite script. They come with the glowing intentions of changing the department, find themselves overwhelmed and captured by the “big blue machine,” or, in some cases, discredited for their efforts, and leave without having affected the LAPD. Like the Chinese, the department deals with these invaders by absorbing and assimilating them. Former Chief Daryl F. Gates once confided that he had been reliably informed that a certain female police commissioner had been appointed for the primary purpose of driving him, if not crazy, then out of the department. The anticipated clash between the macho chief and the assertive, liberated woman was short-lived, since she soon became a police “groupie,” shooting craps with staff officers at their annual retreat and, for a time, dating one of the senior command staff.
The current Police Commission is no different from its predecessors. The commissioners, as always, are at the mercy of the department staff, who communicate only what they want the commission to hear. The commissioners, no matter how intelligent and sophisticated they may be, are no match for the carefully crafted positions advanced by the department, positions that reflect years of collective experience as police administrators. Diverse ideas not reflective of the chief’s agenda are unlikely to arise from within the department. Conversely, if civilian oversight of the police is to become a reality and not just a recommendation, expert, full-time, professional staff assistance is necessary.
Does the city’s political leadership wish to return to a system in which the commission’s review of police discipline is strictly token? Are civilian control of the department and other “progressive” ideas being moved down the political priority list by more “practical” concerns for business and economic development? If so, there may be no worry about Chief Bernard C. Parks, who, by most accounts, is performing well and pursuing implementation of the Christopher Commission recommendations.
As long as this sentiment prevails, and the current political leadership remains in power, the next inspector general will probably be more of a team player.*