An odd thing happened during Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks’ overhaul of the LAPD.
Phones began ringing at the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
The organization typically fields complaints about LAPD officers. But now, cold calls were coming in from LAPD officers--charging that their own civil rights were being violated as a result of new discipline policies.
For good or ill, something had definitely changed in Los Angeles. The Police Department legendary for resisting change was being rattled to its bones by its new ramrod-straight chief.
Whether that change has resulted in improvement is a matter of fierce debate.
The LAPD’s rank and file officers keenly feel the effects of the new system. Their union is waging an all-out campaign to unseat Parks, who announced Thursday that he will request a second five-year term. Some civilian critics, meanwhile, question whether scores of personnel investigations concerning small acts of misconduct are the most effective means of dealing with more serious problems, such as those revealed in the Rampart Division corruption investigation.
But supporters say the LAPD is doing something it never did well before: listening to the powerless.
To understand why discipline is playing such a central role in Parks’ future, it is necessary to understand only one aspect of his complicated and controversial system: its magnitude.
Put simply, many, many more LAPD officers are subject to disciplinary proceedings these days than before. Parks himself calls it “a profound change,” one that alters “about 50 years of history.”
Imagine a workplace in which many if not most employees are facing the possibility of discipline at any given time, where nearly everyone knows of someone who has been punished, and where bosses devote almost as much time to discipline as to supervision. That is the LAPD under Parks.
There are nearly 6,000 complaint investigations initiated yearly against the LAPD’s 9,000-officer force--two for every three officers. The number of penalties being meted out each year totals on average almost one per every three officers. In any given LAPD roll call today, there is likely to be someone in the room who is entangled in some way with the disciplinary system.
Most complaints against officers involve allegations of minor misconduct, and a majority result in penalties no more severe than admonition. Discourtesy, for example, is the No. 1 public complaint against LAPD officers. The system also processes scores of internal neglect-of-duty complaints--leaving a shift early, for example, or getting into a preventable car accident.
Union leaders complain that the psychological toll of the disciplinary system on ordinary officers has resulted in a crushingly negative employment atmosphere. Supervisors fret that a glum mood stifles innovation and discourages proactive policing.
Moreover, Parks’ emphasis on off-duty offenses such as domestic violence, and on lying, has further increased the sense that people are being scrutinized in highly personal ways. Officers, laments Bob Baker, vice president of the Police Protective League union, “are just so beat up.”
The system requires a gigantic, multimillion-dollar bureaucratic machine to operate. This siphons a substantial amount of supervisors’ time and diverts resources from other functions.
Besides 255 positions budgeted to Internal Affairs, LAPD line supervisors say they have been spending between a quarter and half of their time exclusively on discipline investigations in recent years.
Even so, the department was unable to keep up with the workload until very recently. Before the policy was changed last year, officers were not allowed to transfer or be promoted with complaint cases pending. Large numbers, many of whom had done nothing wrong, were thus caught in career limbo.
At the same time, some LAPD commanders have questioned whether all this time and effort wouldn’t be better spent overseeing officers more closely, thus averting misconduct that leads to complaints.
There are also worries about the system’s potential for misuse. A persistent concern is that criminals have learned to strike back at arresting officers by filing misconduct complaints. Internal Affairs officers tell of allegations involving ex-spouses or lovers of officers that seem to have more to do with heartbreak, vengeance or custody disputes than misconduct.
Other allegations turn out to be merely frivolous--a citizen complaining that an officer failed to remove his sunglasses, for example--but still cost money and time to investigate.
The blizzard of complaints may play into the hands of defense attorneys, who have been given more leeway to review officers’ disciplinary histories. Such motions have exploded, from 449 requests involving the LAPD in 1995 to 2,270 last year, creating a huge workload for city bureaucracies and exposing many more officers’ personnel files to public view.
But for all its difficulties, Parks’ system has a key point in its favor: It has realized important aspects of the vision for the LAPD spelled out in the 1991 Christopher Commission report.
The commission’s landmark study addressed problems in the LAPD after the beating of Rodney King; it has been viewed as a guiding light for reform.
A central theme was the notion that there existed in the department a troubling, widespread culture that tolerated violence.
The commission also chronicled a host of little misdeeds that members thought provided fertile soil for bigger crimes. There was the coarse and racist chatter on the patrol car e-mail systems, the winking tolerance of neglect of duty, the dismissive attitudes toward citizen complaints.
Changing a Culture
Such behavior, the report concluded, contributed to a cavalier culture in which some officers felt they could violate civil rights with impunity.
Although the Christopher Commission did not lay out specific mechanisms for disciplinary reform in detail, it made clear that the department should take minor misconduct seriously and put a premium on heeding and tracking citizen complaints.
The commission also said it was important to keep track of complaints against officers even if the officers were found to have done nothing wrong. Individual citizen complaints are not often proved, but if they accumulate in patterns, they may still signal something amiss. The union views this as potentially unfair.
Much of the essence of Parks’ reforms is pure Christopher, reflecting the commission’s preoccupation with accountability for both major and minor misconduct, and with responsiveness to citizen complaints. Other elements of his system reflect subsequent reform recommendations--cracking down on domestic violence, for instance.
By design, the system makes Parks the final arbiter of most disciplinary cases. Complaints against officers are examined either within the LAPD chain of command or by Internal Affairs investigators.
Command officers recommend penalties using a guide negotiated with the officers’ union last year. The chief makes the final decisions, and in 90% of cases agrees with the recommendations.
The strongest penalty Parks can impose is a 22-day suspension. Beyond this, he must refer cases to a Board of Rights, consisting of two command officers and a civilian, who have the power to mete out stiffer penalties, including termination. Parks can sign off on the penalty or reduce it; he cannot increase it.
The number of cases that end up there are a small fraction of the total--just 226 last year out of thousands investigated. And of this fraction, an even smaller sliver end in firings: 32 last year. Another 52 of these Board of Rights cases ended in officers’ being found not guilty.
In practical terms, Parks’ vehicle for changing discipline has been Special Order One, adopted in 1998. Deceptively simple on its face, the idea it contained had power and reach that no one at the time--Parks included--seems to have anticipated.
Complaints Often Ignored
Traditionally, the LAPD’s complaint system allowed desk sergeants and other low-level managers to apply a high degree of discretion when citizens complained about officers. The idea was to spend time investigating only important matters.
But in practice, a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil attitude prevailed. Complaints deemed unworthy of attention were merely logged or yellow-sheeted--in the department’s lingo--only to be stuffed away in drawers. If the department didn’t want to hear about something, it was pretty easy to make it go away.
The Christopher Commission cited an especially striking example: Rodney King’s brother showed up at the Foothill Division the day after the beating to make a complaint but left in frustration.
Parks forced the LAPD to listen.
Now, he said, all citizen complaints would be booked and tracked and followed up on by investigators. Desk sergeants would no longer dismiss farfetched stories or complaints, because in those complaints might lurk the seeds of the worst police misconduct: the planted gun, the stolen drugs, the bloodied form of Rodney King.
Special Order One opened the floodgates. Complaints exploded, from about 1,900 per year in 1997 to the current levels of nearly 6,000 per year.
Up and down the ranks, officers who had never had complaints against them were suddenly accumulating disciplinary histories. Fat personnel files proliferated. Whole offices in the Parker Center headquarters had to be rearranged to accommodate new file cabinets. Internal Affairs toiled late into the night.
For some LAPD brass, it was a kind of epiphany.
“I was stunned,” said Deputy Chief Michael J. Bostic, recalling how he was once skeptical of the department’s critics. “I had to say, ‘You know what? They were right.’ ”
It was, says Parks, “absolutely mind-boggling. . . . You look at it and you say, ‘What were we doing with all this stuff before?’ ”
But other department higher-ups were not so easily converted. Much of the burden of implementing the system fell to overworked area captains and lower-level managers first in line to confront officers’ anger.
Parks recently backed off a little, agreeing to a kind of triage approach to taking public complaints and streamlining the handling of internal ones.
The department says it has cleared much of its backlog, but the glacial pace of investigations still erodes the effectiveness of the process.
The number of unsubstantiated complaints against officers suggests that citizens are not always fair witnesses. By the same token, the difficulty citizens have proving anything against LAPD officers--just 15% of public complaints are sustained--continues to trouble civil libertarians.
But Parks argues that the result still serves ordinary Los Angeles residents more than politicians or police officers.
To those who fault the system’s expense, Parks points to the cost of two catastrophic Los Angeles riots. Civil unrest didn’t flare from nothing, he contends: Its embers were stoked for years in minority communities by officers’ countless small acts of discourtesy and disrespect.
“I am trying to create a message that officer integrity is absolutely essential, that the ability to work with the community is essential, that accountability is essential,” the chief said.
The complaint system “has impacted morale,” Parks added. “But do we [reform] only to the extent that morale is affected? At what point do you stop--when people don’t like it? . . . Think about it. An officer can alter your life. An officer can take away the two most precious things you have: your life and your liberty.”
Results in Question
One key question about Parks’ reforms is whether the new discipline will succeed in remolding the LAPD culture criticized by the Christopher Commission.
Evidence so far is mixed. Some commanders say that, tugged and pinched by discipline at every turn, the LAPD may be taking a kinder, gentler form. But there is also plenty of evidence that officers are misbehaving in the same old ways.
For example, use of force per arrest is now below the level of the early 1990s, although much of that change preceded Parks’ tenure as chief. There have also been decreases in complaints involving domestic violence, dishonesty and ethnic remarks. But discourtesy and excessive-force complaints are up; whether because of police actions or heightened public consciousness is hard to say. Meanwhile, officers seem to miss court appointments just as much as always.
Still, the perception that Parks’ disciplinary system has permeated the LAPD is widely shared by insiders.
“We don’t know how many problems the discipline system has stopped before they started,” said Foothill Division Sgt. Bob Kirk. “But I can tell you this: The guys think about their actions now. I know they do.”
But critics, including some LAPD commanders, fret that fear of incurring discipline has made officers too tentative to be effective.
“The police are not as aggressive as they used to be,” said Terry Gonzalez, a Neighborhood Watch member and lifelong resident of Boyle Heights, which has been racked by bloody gang murders of late. She said gang members in her neighborhood are so emboldened they deride police with complaint threats and spray-paint patrol cars.
Statistics on field interview cards, a measure of police contacts, show a sharp initial drop under Parks, but are now starting to go back up. Arrest data, though, show no clear pattern.
Some civil liberties advocates ask whether the LAPD is missing the forest for the trees--focusing too much on minor misdeeds and not enough on major ones.
After all, most pressure to reform the LAPD has come from people concerned over serious, civil rights-related offenses, such as excessive force.
Lt. Paul Vernon of Internal Affairs said it is the kind of question the department can’t resolve.
“On the inside they say we are way too hard. On the outside they are saying we are way too soft. Somewhere in between is the answer,” he said.
Numerous officers have been investigated and punished for serious misconduct in recent years. The job of auditing such investigations falls to LAPD Inspector General Jeffrey C. Eglash, a civilian.
He has some concerns about uneven quality of LAPD investigations but said: “The majority of investigations conducted by the department are thorough and reach the correct result. . . . We generally agree with the range of penalties.”
Far-reaching as they have been, the effects of the new complaint system on the LAPD constitute only one aspect of change within the department that has made officers feel hectored.
The Rampart scandal broke shortly after the new complaint system was introduced, unleashing a new wave of self-examination. New risk-management policies, which aim to rein in the costs of civil lawsuits, have brought new scrutiny of officers. A similar effort to reassign those whose work histories might jeopardize prosecutions has also created controversy.
Additionally, last year, a federal consent decree was accepted by the city under pressure from the U.S. Justice Department, which stepped in to protect civil rights. The decree has meant further changes that affect officers, and will at last kick-start the LAPD’s long-delayed computer system for tracking problem officers.
(The decree, however, leaves core elements of Parks’ disciplinary system alone, to some extent vindicating his approach. On the issue of complaints, for example, the decree mainly exhorts the department to continue what it is doing.)
Officers don’t like the changes, nor should they be expected to, Parks said.
He laments that officers have taken things personally, but also calls poor morale “a fleeting issue.” Internal unhappiness over his policies is the price paid for “the greater good: a product that serves the community,” he said, adding that the disciplinary system “was not invented for internal personnel. It was invented for the community.”
Serious Disputes Linger
This doesn’t sit well with the union, or with managers who view his discipline as retaliatory.
But in a further twist, it hasn’t endeared Parks to some of the LAPD’s civilian critics either. This is partly because other unresolved serious disputes over discipline in the department remain, including treatment of whistle-blowers, criminal prosecution of officers and disclosure of information to civilians.
Some people have found themselves in the awkward position lately of asserting that the pendulum has swung too far. A few even contend that Parks is seeking to destroy reform by embracing it a little too enthusiastically.
“I call it malicious obedience,” said Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael Judge. He accuses Parks of carrying out his reforms “to the fullest theoretical boundary . . . to make it so cumbersome that it will collapse of its own weight.”
The irony of being attacked for years for not reforming, only to be attacked now for reforming too much, is more than some LAPD higher-ups can take.
“We fully understand that the pendulum will swing back and forth,” quipped Deputy Chief David Doan, “but now it is like the swinging ax in the pit.”
Even the usually cautious Parks can sound a little exasperated: “I mean, we did this in six months,” he said. “In many instances, we would be applauded for trying to change something so dramatically.”