Power to Discipline LAPD Officers Is Out of the Chief's Hands

William J. Bratton is chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

The controversial decision exonerating Los Angeles Police Department Officer Edward Larrigan of misconduct in the fatal shooting of Margaret Mitchell was greeted with loud cries of outrage and a demand for accountability. My department and I were taken to task for the decision of the three-member board of rights panel, which decided that Larrigan had not violated departmental policy when he shot the woman, who was mentally ill and brandishing a screwdriver. The Los Angeles Times, among others, attacked the decision and opined that I ought to "send the right message to [my] officers."

The truth is I send strong messages to the men and women of the LAPD every single day. I consistently remind them of their sworn responsibility to serve the citizens of Los Angeles, to enforce the law without breaking the law and of their critical role in strengthening the quality of life in our great city. I exhort them at every opportunity to focus on our three top priorities: to reduce crime, fear and disorder; to implement the consent decree properly; and to make our community safe from terrorism.

I fully and completely accept my role as chief of police to lead and direct the men and women under my command, even when the decisions are unpopular or difficult. But it's important to remember one thing: The chief of the Los Angeles Police Department does not control discipline in the LAPD. This is a fact and it has been this way since the 1930s.

The board of rights process, designed by then-Lt. William H. Parker, was intended to keep control over employees out of the hands of the chief of police, who was, at that point in history a corrupt individual.

In those days, Chief James E. Davis was beholden to then-Mayor Frank Shaw, who presided over a corrupt city, aided by his brother, who controlled the vice squad and the sale of police promotion exams. The disciplinary process was simply one more tool used to maintain control over the Police Department specifically and the city generally. Parker, who later became police chief, campaigned successfully for passage of the charter amendment in 1935. Ultimately, Davis was forced to resign and Shaw became the first big-city mayor in the nation to be recalled by the voters.

Let's be very clear: If I want to terminate or severely discipline an employee today, the most influence I can have is to direct that employee to a board of rights hearing. This rotating board -- made up of two command officers and a civilian -- is chaired by people I do not select, hears testimony and renders a finding of guilty or not guilty. If a finding of guilty results, the board imposes a penalty. The members do not consult with me, nor am I allowed to advise them of my desires. I can only accept the penalty or reduce it.

The board of rights process may have been created for good reasons, but the reality today is that here I have less control over the discipline system than I had in the other police departments I led, and, I am told, less than any other chief in California. As designed by Parker, the process was intended to be kept out of the chief's control in every respect. The rules expressly state that "no sworn member of a board of rights shall be subject to any benefit, retaliation or adverse personnel action based upon their findings or recommendations.... "

The frustration that I feel is not new. Chief Willie L. Williams and Chief Bernard C. Parks before me suffered the same frustrations; both met with some individual board members to "discuss" specific board results that they did not agree with. Subsequently, some of the command officers who had been called in complained about intimidation.

There are clear problems with the system. But until the City Charter is changed, it is the law of the city of Los Angeles and the method I must follow. True reform of the disciplinary process would require a rewrite of the board of rights system and a citywide vote to change the charter. That is a debate I would be pleased to be part of in my shared mission with the Police Commission to make the LAPD the finest and most responsive police department in the nation.

No chief executive of any governmental organization or private company can truly control and lead his or her organization without control over the disciplinary process.

The cold, hard reality of Los Angeles is that as chief of police, I lack the necessary ability to control and impose discipline on my staff. Giving the chief -- a chief who is directly accountable to civilian management -- that power would help ensure the proper delivery of the appropriate message.

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