Police chief, mayor urge openness
With the Los Angeles Police Department suddenly confronted with intense criticism for its policies of secrecy, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton on Thursday called for changing state law to ensure that police disciplinary board meetings and some records are reopened to the public.
A day after community activists and city officials expressed outrage because the LAPD held a secret board of rights hearing to clear the officer who fatally shot 13-year-old Devin Brown, Bratton likened the closure of the process to a “star chamber.”
“I am in support of change. I am very frustrated by [the current process],” Bratton said early Thursday. “The public has no access to it. The media has no access to it. That’s crazy, absolutely crazy. We have nothing to hide in the Los Angeles Police Department.”
Hours later, Villaraigosa issued a concurring statement .
“The mayor would enthusiastically support legislation or other measures to open the board of rights process to the public,” the statement said. “Transparency ... would benefit both the public and the officers facing disciplinary action.”
The proposal to reopen hearings, however, drew a strong rebuke from the union representing LAPD officers, and leaders vowed to vigorously fight it in Sacramento.
The endorsement of openness from the mayor and chief -- after months of closed-door disciplinary hearings -- reflected the swift, and sometimes racially divisive, public outcry that has followed the Brown case. Angry residents and city leaders have condemned the board’s ruling, and placed Bratton in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the LAPD without being able to discuss the facts behind the decision.
That has crystallized for many observers the difficulties in privately administering discipline, especially given the deeply ingrained suspicion about the LAPD in some minority communities.
On Wednesday, The Times revealed that an LAPD board had secretly cleared Officer Steven Garcia in the Brown case after the civilian Police Commission had declared the shooting to be in violation of policy.
Although disciplinary hearings had historically been open in Los Angeles, the LAPD changed its policy late last year in response to a California Supreme Court ruling that restricted access to law enforcement personnel records in a San Diego case.
A few months before, the Police Commission also changed a decades-old policy and began removing from public reports the names of officers involved in shootings. At that time, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) told commissioners that if they were concerned about potential court restrictions she would sponsor legislation to ensure that officers’ names not be struck from public police records.
Bratton said he plans to meet with Romero today and offer his support for a change in state law, although he predicted that it would be an “uphill battle” because of opposition from police union leaders.
Indeed, the head of the Los Angeles Police Protective League defended the closed board of rights hearings.
“Although these are confidential meetings that are closed to reporters, the public is absolutely represented, both by civilian board of rights members, and by the inspector general,” union President Bob Baker said. “We respectfully disagree with the chief that dragging these cases through the media will be helpful to the officers involved.”
Romero said Thursday that changing state law would be challenging, but that support from Bratton and Villaraigosa would help.
“This is powerful and will help move this issue forward,” Romero said.
The Supreme Court decision in Copley Press Inc. vs. Superior Court of San Diego is based in part on the Police Officers Bill of Rights, a state law that could be amended to loosen restrictions on records. At the same time, an amendment to the Los Angeles City Charter could expand the role of the Police Commission in disciplining officers.
Bratton said the LAPD has a thorough and fair disciplinary process.
“However, oftentimes it leads to great frustration, and particularly now with the craziness of us not being able to talk about, with any specificity, what went on, we effectively have a star chamber here in Los Angeles,” Bratton said.
The chief said the current restrictions on public access represent a move “backwards” in transparency from 1999, when investigations into the police shooting of Margaret Mitchell -- a homeless woman said to have threatened an officer with a screwdriver -- were open to greater public scrutiny.
The chief defended the LAPD investigation into the Feb. 6, 2005, shooting of Brown by Officer Steven Garcia. After a brief chase, Garcia fired 10 shots at Brown -- hitting him seven times -- as the youth was backing a stolen car in the officer’s direction.
Ann Reiss Lane, a former police commissioner who was the lone civilian on the Garcia board of rights panel, said Thursday that she also supported reopening disciplinary proceedings.
“There was nothing that took place in this hearing that should not have been absolutely public,” Lane said.
Bratton said such hearings are important because the officer gets to present his side of the case, which sometimes reveals more information than what was available to the Police Commission.
“All of that stuff should be in the broad light of day,” Bratton said.
Bratton said he was personally “frustrated” that the process was interfering with efforts to improve police-community relations.
“We are quite proud of the investigative capabilities of the department, and the more that we show those off, the better the public would have an understanding of what we do,” he said. “I come from the East Coast where by and large I could have a lot more freedom to talk about what we are doing. Out here I feel like I am running around with a muzzle on all the time.”
Yet Bratton expressed serious doubt about whether the law could be changed, given the political clout that police unions wield in Sacramento and Los Angeles.
“I am not going to hold my breath waiting for the state Legislature to change the Police Bill of Rights,” Bratton said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Baker said opposition to any change was justified.
“We strongly support last year’s California Supreme Court ruling that police officers have the right to keep their personnel records private,” Baker said. “Law enforcement officers are already vulnerable to criminals intent on doing them harm, and we need to be able to protect the safety as well as the privacy of our officers and their families. We will fight any legislation that would reduce or remove this right of privacy.”
Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this report.