The Los Angeles Police Commission’s new policy of withholding officers’ names applies not only to shootings but also to violent encounters in which police use their fists, batons, flashlights, rubber bullets or anything else at their disposal to subdue suspects, the commission’s executive director said Tuesday.
And the privacy protection applies not just to the officer who used the force but also to all others who played a key role in the incident. For example, the first report released under the new policy protects the identity of a deputy chief who was criticized for his role as a supervisor in a botched undercover operation that culminated in a shooting.
Although the public debate on the commission’s new policy has focused on shootings, the implications of the panel’s decision are much broader. Executive Director Richard Tefank said the commission will protect the identities of all officers involved in “categorical use-of-force” incidents.
Such incidents have played a defining role in the recent history of Los Angeles and have been publicized in previous civilian reports on the LAPD. In 1991, for instance, the Christopher Commission analyzed the beating of Rodney G. King, and its report -- which included the names of the principal officers -- helped spur reform in the department. Similarly, the LAPD’s internal report that analyzed the Rampart scandal revealed the names of several officers involved in uses of police force.
Categorical uses of force, which are reviewed by the five-member civilian panel, include every police encounter in which a suspect is struck in the head or hospitalized because of injuries inflicted by an officer. Additionally, under the new policy the names of officers will be withheld from reports about suspects who die while in police custody.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a former USC law professor who wrote a report on the LAPD after the Rampart scandal, said he was troubled to learn that the commission’s decision extends to other uses of force, which he said are more likely than shootings to go unnoticed by the media and the public.
“The threat to accountability is much larger than I first thought,” said Chemerinsky, now a law professor at Duke University in North Carolina. “It’s when a police officer inflicts serious injury that there is the greatest need for accountability. This [new policy] says there is no accountability.”
Commissioner Andrea Ordin, who had been designated a spokeswoman on the issue, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
The commission changed its policy during a closed-door session two months ago. The change in the 25-year-old practice of naming officers was based on advice from City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, who warned that officers’ privacy rights might be violated by the release of personnel information.
The panel reaffirmed its position during a public meeting last week after The Times published an article revealing the policy change. Opposition to the change continues, and the commission has scheduled a special meeting today to discuss the matter further.
The first report released under the commission’s new policy demonstrates how far it can go beyond protecting the names of officers who fire their guns. The report deals with an officer-involved shooting that occurred during an undercover internal affairs operation in October 2004 in the LAPD’s Southeast Division.
The sting, intended to test the “behavior and the lawfulness” of Southeast Division officers on patrol that night, involved a plainclothes internal affairs officer riding a bicycle on a street near the Avalon Gardens housing development, an area known for drug dealing and gang activity.
The incident went awry when the undercover officer pedaled his bike toward an unmarked police vehicle to get a new battery for his hidden microphone.
As he approached the vehicle near 91st Street and Stanford Avenue, a red car drove past him and slowed and at least one of the occupants opened fire, striking two undercover police vehicles.
One officer fired five rounds at the red car. Because the officer’s name was deleted, it’s impossible to know whether he has been involved in previous or subsequent shootings or if there is anything else in his background that may be relevant in assessing his conduct.
Under normal circumstances, a radio call describing the attacker’s vehicle would have been broadcast immediately over Southeast Division frequencies and the shooting scene would have been secured by police tape.
But because it was an undercover operation involving officers whose identities were closely guarded secrets even within the LAPD, the officers involved in the sting communicated on an encrypted frequency reserved for their use and fled the shooting scene to a previously selected meeting spot about three miles away.
Southeast Division patrol officers who might have been able to stop the car involved in the shooting were not immediately notified, police said.
A report submitted to the commission by Chief William J. Bratton was highly critical of the operation.
The chief’s report stated that Deputy Chief Michael Berkow’s desire to conduct the sting before certain officers were transferred out of Southeast Division created “pressure” to go forward with the operation, despite concerns that the officers’ cover had been blown and other problems that were emerging.
“By forcing the operation, officer safety was unnecessarily jeopardized,” the chief’s report states.
Bratton also faulted the planners of the sting for being overly concerned with maintaining the secrecy of the operation.
“The veil of secrecy, while important, appeared to be paramount to this operational plan, rather than officer safety,” the chief’s report stated.
Bratton found that Berkow, a lieutenant and at least two sergeants performed so poorly during the incident that their actions required “administrative disapproval,” opening the door to disciplinary action.
Bratton’s report identified all the involved officers by name. But the commission deleted those names before the document was publicly released. Times reporters confirmed Berkow’s involvement through sources familiar with the incident.
Berkow could not be reached for comment.
In addition to withholding the officers’ names, the five-member civilian commission -- in order to preserve investigative techniques -- deleted details about the how the incident unfolded.
In all, the 16-page report contains about 390 deletions, ranging from names to single words to several paragraphs on a page.
The incident points to shortcomings in the commission’s position that officers’ names can be gleaned from other reports released by the LAPD.
For example, the department’s news release the day after the shooting withheld the names of officers involved and gave no hint of the many tactical failures identified later. The release was prepared by Berkow’s staff.
Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition in San Francisco, said he was alarmed that the commission’s redactions spread beyond just the officer who pulled the trigger.
“The extension of the policy to any police officer even remotely involved in an incident is a wholly different situation and results in vastly greater secrecy,” said Scheer, whose nonprofit organization works in favor of open governance.
“It’s always easier if you’re the person with the pen to delete things rather than risk criticism from your supervisor,” he added.