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Police secrecy bill not embraced

Times Staff Writer

Despite publicly denouncing the secrecy surrounding police misconduct, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have withheld their full support for a bill that would ensure public access to disciplinary records and hearings.

State Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who sponsored the bill on behalf of Bratton and Villaraigosa, said she was disappointed that the city’s leaders have failed to fully commit to greater transparency of officer discipline. The bill is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday.

“It feels like there has been some hedging of support and some abdication of leadership on this issue,” Romero said last week.

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Amid much public fanfare three months ago, Bratton and Villaraigosa declared that they wanted to find a legislative remedy to state laws restricting public disclosure of officer misconduct. Romero offered her help and consulted with aides to Bratton and Villaraigosa on the final language of the bill. Now, Romero says, the mayor and chief are advocating language that would make the bill weaker.

In a letter to Romero’s office earlier this week, Bratton and Villaraigosa offered support only for the provisions of her bill that would overturn a state Supreme Court decision last summer in Copley Press Inc. vs. Superior Court of San Diego.

In that case, the court prohibited public disclosure of personnel records of a sheriff’s deputy appealing discipline at a county civil service commission.

After that ruling, Los Angeles Police Department officials denied access to disciplinary hearings and records that previously had been open to the public.

“The Police Department’s position hasn’t changed,” said Lt. Paul Vernon, a spokesman for the LAPD. “We want to go back to the status quo. The way things were before the Copley decision.”

He said Romero’s bill, as drafted, “does more than that.”

In addition to overturning the Copley decision, Romero’s bill would provide greater public access to basic facts surrounding sustained police misconduct and give police agencies the discretion to release even more detailed information about disciplinary cases.

Romero said she had hoped that Villaraigosa and Bratton would attend Tuesday’s hearing and testify in support of it. Instead, they are sending representatives, who are expected to give only their qualified support.

A spokesman for Villaraigosa said the mayor would be unveiling the city budget this week and has a scheduling conflict with the hearing.

Even if Bratton and Villaraigosa did support the entirety of Romero’s bill, it still would face a tough legislative battle. Although many grass-roots organizations, media associations and civil liberties groups embrace Romero’s bill, powerful law enforcement unions are strongly opposed to any effort to chip away at police privacy rights.

In addition to the apparent reservations by Bratton and Villaraigosa, the City Council has failed to act on a resolution offered in January that would endorse state legislation to overturn Copley. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, however, passed a similar resolution last week.

Los Angeles City Council members Bernard C. Parks and Jan Perry have sent their own letters of support to Romero, without quibbling about any of the bill’s language.

“Secrecy around citizen complaints about police misconduct will only result in greater mistrust of the police, poor police-community relations, and ultimately less responsive and accountable police agencies,” wrote Parks, who was the police chief before Bratton.

Police accountability expert Merrick J. Bobb also wrote Romero expressing his “strong support” for “much-needed legislation.”

Romero’s bill is not the only one seeking to overturn the Copley decision.

Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has proposed similar, but more strongly worded, legislation. That bill is also expected to be debated Tuesday.

Bratton and Villaraigosa injected themselves into the debate earlier this year after a disciplinary panel secretly exonerated an officer involved in one high-profile shooting, even though the civilian Police Commission had said the officer should be punished.

Community and city leaders criticized the closed-door decision and called for reforms that would reopen the hearings.

In response to that criticism, Bratton and Villaraigosa called for new state legislation, prompting Romero’s help.

At a Martin Luther King Day parade in Los Angeles, Bratton and Villaraigosa stood side by side with Romero when she announced that she would sponsor a bill aimed at making law enforcement discipline more transparent.

Bratton said new legislation was “vital for all concerned” and that the LAPD had “nothing to hide.”

Villaraigosa declared that “the people of this city have a right to know how police officer discipline is conducted.”

On Friday, Romero said she wished that Bratton and Villaraigosa’s support were as strong now as it had been in front of the cameras three months ago.

Nonetheless, Romero said, she remains optimistic about the bill’s prospects.

“I will argue this before the committee,” she said. “This needs to be done.”

matt.lait@latimes.com


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