In the three years after former LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Berkow took over the department's internal affairs unit, the percentage of misconduct complaints that were upheld against police for engaging in gender bias dropped sharply, from about one in four to one in 10, according to internal reports.
Those declines were part of a broader but more modest drop in Los Angeles Police Department findings against police officers in response to complaints under Berkow's watch. That same period was marked by a continuation of the department's reluctance to uphold discrimination complaints -- not one such complaint was upheld during the three years after Berkow joined the LAPD, nor were any sustained, or deemed valid, during the three years prior to his arrival.
The decline in sustained complaints is not entirely attributable to actions by internal affairs. The decision on whether or not to sustain a complaint rests with command officers, though they base those decisions on information uncovered by internal affairs. In addition, the overall number of complaints increased significantly under Berkow's tenure -- in part, the result of more aggressive sting operations to ensure that officers took complaints rather than brushing them off. One result is that the percentage of sustained cases dropped as the overall number of complaints grew.
Berkow's stewardship of LAPD's internal affairs is under scrutiny this week in the wake of revelations that he admitted, in a court deposition, to having had an affair with a subordinate, though not one who reported directly to him. In a lawsuit, he also has been accused of giving preferential treatment to female officers with whom he is alleged to have had sex. He has denied those allegations.
Berkow left the department in October, but the decline in sustained rates, particularly in the area of gender bias, has some in and out of the department questioning the LAPD's internal affairs apparatus.
"The public should be real concerned," said LAPD Det. Art Placencia, president of the Latin American Law Enforcement Assn. "That's a real big red flag. They did a mediocre job."
With the number of proven complaints in decline, more than a dozen LAPD officers have filed lawsuits in the last three years alleging they were the victims of gender bias, retaliation or discrimination and that the department failed to seriously investigate their allegations.
Paul Hoffman, a civil rights attorney who has represented police officers with complaints against the department, said it was cause for worry that sustained complaints were down during the tenure of someone accused of the kind of wrongdoing he was responsible for investigating.
"When you have someone who may have engaged himself in actionable behavior, you'd have a lot of concern about that," Hoffman said.
Berkow, who is now police chief in Savannah, Ga., did not return calls for comment on the drop in sustained complaints. The revelations in recent days have jeopardized his position there, and city officials in Savannah met Thursday to discuss whether he should keep his job based on the allegations that have surfaced in Los Angeles.
Ya May Christle, a sergeant in internal affairs, alleged in a lawsuit that Berkow and the city of Los Angeles retaliated against her after she complained about Berkow's conduct, including allegedly giving preferential treatment to female officers with whom he had sex. The internal affairs group investigates all allegations of gender bias, discrimination and wrongdoing by command staff and other officers. The results of those investigations are used by command officers and the chief, with input from internal affairs, to decide whether the accusations are valid and whether punishment is warranted.
Berkow joined the LAPD in March 2003 as head of internal affairs. Shortly afterward, the chief appointed him deputy chief in charge of internal affairs, which became known as the Professional Standards Bureau.
In its annual report to the Police Commission, the group reported a sustained rate on complaints of 36% in 2001 and 26% in 2002. In the year Berkow joined the department, 2003, the sustained rate stayed at 26%. It dropped to 23% in 2004 and to 21% in 2005, the last year for which the report was filed.
In the three years before Berkow became head of internal affairs, the Police Department sustained 26% of the complaints investigated by the unit involving allegations of gender bias, but only 10% were sustained in the following three years. In addition, no complaints of discrimination were upheld during that period, nor were any sustained during the three years before his arrival.
Placencia, whose Latino officers group has sued the department successfully over discrimination complaints, said it was not surprising that complaints were not being sustained.
"It's usually one police officer against another, and if they start sustaining complaints of discrimination they would have to pay out," the detective said.
Lt. Paul Vernon, a department spokesman, said there is no generic answer to the lack of sustained discrimination complaints. "Every complaint, indeed each allegation, would have to be reviewed to explain why it was not sustained," Vernon said. "If none of the allegations were sustained, then that meant there was not a preponderance of evidence to prove the charge."
Meanwhile, in Savannah on Thursday, Mayor Otis Johnson said the city would wait to decide whether to take any action against Berkow until after the Christle lawsuit is resolved.
"The council has agreed to support the city manager's recommendation to us that we continue to move forward with the chief, and we will support the chief, pending the outcome of the lawsuit in California," said Johnson, according to a transcript of his remarks provided by the city. Johnson made his comments Thursday after meeting in a closed-door session with City Council members and City Manager Michael Brown, who selected Berkow as chief.
Times staff writer Richard Fausset in Atlanta contributed to this report.