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Plan to Change LAPD Consent Decree Rejected

Times Staff Writer

A federal judge rebuked Los Angeles city officials Tuesday for trying to “gut” a key provision of a court consent decree that requires reforms at the Police Department. He warned that he is likely to extend the decree beyond its June 15 expiration date, because of the department’s failure to fulfill some of its provisions.

Hours before rejecting a city proposal to change the decree, U.S. District Judge Gary A. Feess delivered scathing criticism of the efforts to comply with provisions of the agreement, which came out of a 2001 settlement reached with the U.S. Justice Department.

The decree was an attempt to correct conditions that had led to police corruption scandals involving officers beating and framing suspects and stealing evidence.

With Police Chief William J. Bratton sitting quietly in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom, the judge chastised the LAPD for failing, after nearly five years, to implement a computer system, called TEAMS II, required by the decree to serve as an “early warning system” by tracking officers’ use of force, pursuits, collisions, citizen complaints and civil claims.

“There is no way the consent decree can expire given the failure, among other things, to implement TEAMS II,” Feess said.

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The judge called the special court hearing after the city and the Justice Department proposed the first negotiated change in the consent decree. One provision requires officers who handle drugs, cash and other contraband -- about 600 officers working mostly in narcotics and gang units -- to periodically disclose their personal finances so their supervisors can look for signs that they might be illegally profiting from their jobs.

The city has never implemented that provision. In negotiations, the police union has argued that it creates a burden for officers and might not be an effective way to determine whether an officer is corrupt.

The proposed change, agreed to by the city, would no longer have required the periodic disclosure, but would have called for the department to launch random and focused sting operations to judge officer conduct.

“This was intended to effectively achieve the same outcome by a different route,” Bratton said outside the courtroom. “I would be very comfortable with focused stings as outlined in the proposal today. Financial disclosure, as someone who has to go through one every year, is an incredible burden, and one that the union has made quite clear is an unfair burden on their membership.”

In court, Feess said, “I’m not at all persuaded that this change has anything to do with making this a better consent decree.”

He later denied the motion to change the decree.

The court’s federal monitor of the decree, Michael Cherkasky, also opposed the change, saying that requiring officers to disclose their finances is considered a “best practice” in law enforcement.

“This is a substantial diminishment of the consent decree,” Cherkasky said in arguing against the change.

During the hearing, Feess said he opposed the change, “if you are attempting to amend [the provision] in a way that guts it, and I think that’s what’s happening here.”

The judge made no attempt to hide his frustration with the city, noting that the LAPD has continued to be plagued by problems, despite numerous commissioned reports over the years aimed at correcting conditions following such notorious incidents as the 1965 Watts riots and the 1991 police beating of Rodney G. King.

“There has been 40-plus years of debate in this community about how it is policed,” Feess told city officials. “And time after time after time, those reports were nodded to and nothing was ever done. This consent decree is going to effect real reform and it’s not going to be extinguished until that happens.”

Bratton said outside of court that he has maintained for months that some provisions of the consent decree would have to be extended. He also said the judge could modify the decree to eliminate most of the provisions with which the chief believes the department has complied.

“The best-case scenario is that the consent decree is modified to focus on those areas in which the judge feels there has not been full compliance,” Bratton said.

Gerald L. Chaleff, the LAPD’s civilian manager of the consent decree, said at least 122 of 146 provisions for which the Police Department is solely responsible have been “substantially complied with.”

Stephen Yagman, an attorney who has intervened in the case on behalf of victims of police abuse, said the judge clearly signaled that the LAPD will remain under court-ordered monitoring for years to come.

“It’s a setback for the taxpayers of Los Angeles, who will have to pay the additional $50 million each year that the consent decree costs,” he said.


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