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LAPD Policy Change to Get Hearing

Times Staff Writers

Alarmed that the public has been kept in the dark on a major policy change, Los Angeles City Council members announced Wednesday they would conduct a hearing on a Police Commission decision to withhold the names of officers involved in shootings.

At the urging of six colleagues, Councilman Jack Weiss said the council’s Public Safety Committee, which he chairs, will hold a hearing on the matter in the near future.

“The problem here is that information that has been in the public domain is now being kept secret, for secret reasons,” Weiss said. “I want to air the city attorney’s legal rationale for this in public.”

Bernard C. Parks, who was police chief before winning a seat on the council, said the commission’s decision -- initially made during a closed session in December and reaffirmed in a public vote this week -- appears to violate a long-standing LAPD practice of releasing the names of officers in shootings.

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Parks was joined by council members Jan Perry, Tony Cardenas, Janice Hahn, Ed Reyes and Herb Wesson in saying they support having a hearing to examine the legal and public-policy justification for the change.

“I’m somewhat befuddled as to why that decision was made,” said Parks. “It’s overturning a couple decades of what I understand has been the trend and procedures for making the commission report a public document. I don’t understand their rationale.”

Weiss, Parks, Reyes and Wesson stopped short of calling for the council to overrule the Police Commission, which takes the agreement of at least 10 of the 15 council members. As of Wednesday, however, seven members said they would likely oppose such action.

Councilmen Dennis Zine and Greig Smith, both reserve police officers, supported the commission’s action.

“I don’t have a problem with it at all,” said Zine, a former police union director. “I have great respect for the commission.”

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has also said he supports the commission’s decision because it balances the privacy rights of officers with the need to make police actions transparent.

The Police Commission voted Tuesday to affirm the decision to withhold officers’ names from reports evaluating whether a shooting violated department procedures.

The city’s policy for 25 years had been to routinely identify officers in the shooting reports, which are written by the police chief and reviewed by the commission, a civilian panel that oversees department standards and operations.

For years, the media and public have turned to the reports for details on controversial shootings, including last year’s fatal shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown, who was killed after a car chase.

Commissioners said City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo recommended they begin withholding officers’ names. But Delgadillo has refused to make the legal opinion public, arguing that it was prepared strictly for the commission. Late Wednesday, officials said a copy would be distributed today to council members -- on the condition that it not be publicly released.

The Police Commission is scheduled next Wednesday to consider voting to waive the attorney-client privilege that has kept Delgadillo’s opinion confidential.

Weiss said his complaint was not with the commission, which he said was following legal advice -- but is with the lack of public information about that advice.

Commissioners said the policy change was also meant to make it possible to continue posting shooting reports on the Internet for public review. Police union leaders had threatened to sue over the release of names.

Commissioner Andrea Sheridan Ordin said shielding the identity of officers ensured that shooting reports would not be considered “personnel information” under state law and thus exempted from public disclosure.

Under the City Charter, if council members want to assert jurisdiction over a city commission, they must muster 10 votes within five council meeting days -- the body meets three times each week. They would then have 21 days to review the item, at which point they could overturn the decision if 10 members agreed.

Councilwoman Perry said she would be in favor of the council taking control of the issue, but she acknowledged the difficulty of collecting the necessary 10 votes.

At a minimum, she said, the Public Safety Committee should ask for the city attorney and Police Commission to brief them on the policy change and its legal justification.

“To reverse a policy without substantive public discussion on the record as to the necessity is a dereliction of our responsibilities to the public,” Perry said.

Wesson said he would oppose taking the issue away from the commission, but liked the idea of a council committee hearing.

“This merits discussion,” he said, “and I think it’s appropriate for us to find out what went into their thought process.”

Ordin said the panel is always open to meeting with council members to talk about policy.

While he supports having a hearing, Cardenas noted that even with the new policy, the names of officers who violate department policy in shootings would eventually become public, either in a lawsuit against the city or when the city fires the officer.

“This decision falls in line with the idea that you are innocent until proven guilty,” Cardenas said. “I don’t think an officer is guilty of anything until it is proved that the officer did something wrong.”

Zine, a former police sergeant, said he supports the commission action. “I understand the reasons -- there are privacy issues,” Zine said.

The councilman did not find fault with the way the commission originally made its decision -- in closed session, without public debate.

“I don’t think public debate has to take place when it’s about a personnel issue,” Zine said.

Others felt such a big change deserved to be done in open.

“I’m torn with that decision,” said Reyes. “On the one hand, you have increased public confidence -- why should we hide anything if we’re doing everything right? On the other hand, the individual rights of the police officers should be preserved until all the facts are right.”

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Times staff writers Matt Lait, Scott Glover and Cynthia Cho contributed to this report.


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