Secrecy again a major issue for the LAPD

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton likes to stress the importance of "transparency" in conducting police work. Such transparency, he argues, reassures the public that police are performing honestly and professionally.

But last week, Bratton was thrust into what amounts to a case study on the perils of government secrecy -- and into the uncomfortable position of having to defend himself against a cascade of criticism that his department was talking one game and playing another.

Controversy has spread over a decision by an LAPD Board of Rights to clear Officer Steven Garcia, whose shooting of a 13-year-old boy was held to be out of policy by the city's Police Commission. Critics of the ruling -- or at least of the process that produced it -- include the American Civil Liberties Union and members of the Los Angeles City Council, among others. They joined in deploring the decision and found themselves in unlikely allegiance; rare is the issue that unites former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, now a councilman, and the ACLU.

The result was an unusual public challenge to Bratton's leadership and one that raised -- as Los Angeles history has a way of doing again and again -- the question of whether a decision reached in secret can satisfy the public, particularly when the question under debate is an allegation of police abuse.

"This," Merrick Bobb, a longtime police accountability expert, said of the secrecy that now surrounds LAPD disciplinary hearings, "is an intolerable result."

Bobb blamed the courts; others targeted Bratton. But few were happy.

"We have another whitewash," South Los Angeles activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson declared on Patt Morrison's show on KPCC-FM (89.3).

"It really undermines the accountability of the Police Department," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor who helped write the Los Angeles City Charter and who has supported Bratton. "There is no way for the public to have confidence in this decision."

By Thursday, the pressure on Bratton had grown sufficiently intense that he joined with those calling for an overhaul of the rules.

"I am in support of change," Bratton told reporters 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."

Within hours, he was joined by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who released a statement echoing his chief's call for new state law and reiterating his commitment to holding open hearings on discipline.

Bobb and others argue that Bratton is not to blame for the current predicament. A California Supreme Court ruling last August held that police personnel records were not public documents.

Based on that ruling, the city attorney's office in Los Angeles advised the Police Department to close its boards of rights, which have been open to the public for decades and have acted as a window into a department whose disciplinary system has all too often been the center of controversy.

In 1991, when the city was still reeling from the videotape of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney G. King on a darkened curb in Lake View Terrace, the Christopher Commission examined the department's disciplinary system and found it sorely lacking. There were, the commissioners concurred, "substantial problems at every stage of the discipline process."

"Minor tinkering or adjustment will not solve these problems," the commission added. "A major system overhaul is required."

The commission debated scrapping the LAPD's system of disciplinary boards, three-member panels convened to hear accusations of serious misconduct by officers. Some areas of the country use civilian review boards, which remove discipline from police departments altogether, and there was significant pressure on the Christopher Commission to follow that course, given the LAPD's failure to police itself.

Instead, the commission elected to keep boards, but to reconstitute them: Prior to the Christopher Commission, boards of rights were made up of three command officers; today, they are composed of two senior officers and a civilian.

But boards throughout that period were conducted with the public present, and their findings were also a matter of public record, so their process was transparent and the members were accountable. Not so anymore. Instead, the current system -- and its result in the controversial ruling this week -- "gives the impression that the Board of Rights is just protecting the officer," Chemerinsky said.

If the current episode illustrates some of the social dangers of government secrecy, it also highlights the futility of that course.

Recent LAPD history is littered with examples of controversies that the department or those around it hoped to keep quiet, without success:

* In 1991, the Christopher Commission omitted from its formal report the names of 44 "problem officers" whose patterns of complaints raised questions about their work. The names leaked anyway.

* A few years later, the Police Commission investigated then-Chief Willie L. Williams to determine whether he had lied to the commission about accepting gifts in Las Vegas. The commission's investigation, conducted in secret and considered so delicate that City Council members refused even to look at the file, nevertheless made it to the front page of The Times and contributed to Williams' downfall. When Williams complained, the city attorney conducted another secret investigation, this one into the source of the leak. That report, printed with specially coded pages in order to ensure its secrecy, leaked the same day it was sent to council members.

* Throughout the investigation into the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman, key pieces of evidence, supposedly gathered in utmost confidentiality, regularly made their way to the front pages of newspapers.

Once, in attempting to get control over the lawyers and police officers in the O.J. Simpson case, Judge Lance A. Ito proposed a gag order and asked the parties to consider it privately.

A copy of the proposed order was published in The Times the following day.

* The Rampart Division probe was conducted secretly until transcripts of the debriefing of Rafael Perez were leaked to The Times, bringing the matter explosively to public attention and thrusting the department into a long, convulsive scandal that culminated in the federal government imposing a consent decree over the LAPD.

The city's proven inability to keep certain matters secret was evidenced again last week. The Board of Rights that ruled in Garcia's favor did so on Monday. By Wednesday morning, that ruling was on the front page of the newspaper.

And yet, although the ruling itself leaked out, the facts that the Board of Rights used to rule in Garcia's favor have remained under lock and key.

That created an especially awkward problem for the Police Department, which was forced to respond to criticism of the decision without being able to cite the evidence that supports it.

"The decision's out now and everybody knows what it is," said Tom Newton, general counsel to the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. "But the agency is disabled in its ability to defend itself."

This, said Chemerinsky, is the "worst of all worlds for the Police Department."

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jim.newton@latimes.com

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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