The blue fog
AN OPEN, accountable and trustworthy Los Angeles Police Department seems perpetually just around the corner. Reforms are instituted, promises and progress made, but with every positive step forward, the pull of secrecy keeps yanking the LAPD ceaselessly backward.
And so, after Rodney King, Rampart and now Devin Brown, we are here: Hearings on officer-involved shootings that once were open are now conducted in secret. Reports that used to name the cop who pulled the trigger now do not. And a community that was finally learning to trust the LAPD is now clouded with suspicion.
The Times reported Wednesday that an LAPD board secretly concluded that no punishment was due an officer who shot and killed the unarmed, 13-year-old Brown in 2005, despite a determination a year ago by the civilian Police Commission that the officer violated LAPD policy and should be disciplined. What was the basis of the reversal? It’s a secret. All we know is that Police Chief William J. Bratton and the LAPD’s union, the Police Protective League, agree the move was the right one. You just have to trust them.
On Wednesday, another LAPD officer shot and killed an unarmed man. Was the action warranted, was it a tragic mistake, or did the officer act unreasonably? Does the officer have a history of bad decisions? What exactly happened, and who was involved? Under rules in place until just over a year ago, we would probably find out, eventually. Under rules in place today, we may never get the answers. That in turn means we may never be able to determine whether we’re getting the reformed LAPD we want.
It’s the Police Commission itself that, despite its stated stance in favor of openness and accountability, decided to delete the names of officers from use-of-force reports, based on the city attorney’s interpretation of a California Supreme Court privacy ruling. At the time, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) stood ready to introduce legislation to clarify privacy law and allow the publishing of those names. But Romero found little support among her colleagues, and the commission didn’t ask her to follow through.
Now Bratton has expressed frustration at the deleted names and closed proceedings, calling the board of rights hearings a “star chamber.” He knows that no matter how perfectly his officers, his department and the various layers of review operate, the veil of secrecy opens them to suspicion and attack.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also supports new efforts to restore openness, as do members of the Police Commission. So if everyone wants it, why don’t we have it?
Romero should move forward with her legislation, but that’s not enough. Bratton suggested that the Police Commission, already nominally in charge of the LAPD, could be further empowered to assure more openness in disciplinary proceedings. It’s a good idea. Changing the City Charter is time-consuming and cumbersome. But if that’s what it takes to reverse the LAPD’s slide back into secrecy, it’s worth it.