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A legal lid on May Day inquiries

MERRICK BOBB, a special counsel who monitors the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for the Board of Supervisors, was special counsel for the Los Angeles Police Commission.

LOS ANGELES Police Chief William J. Bratton has taken decisive steps following the MacArthur Park May Day melee in which the LAPD seems to have used force indiscriminately and disregarded constitutional rights of speech and assembly.

He has already demoted a deputy chief and transferred a commander responsible for the police response at the park. In contrast to former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, Bratton has been forthcoming, honest and informative as this latest LAPD scandal unfolds.

The irony is that California law, in the wake of the California Supreme Court’s misguided 2006 Copley Press vs. Superior Court decision, will tie the chief’s hands as he attempts to be open and transparent about MacArthur Park and its consequences. In that case, the court ruled that opening the disciplinary file of a San Diego County sheriff’s deputy violated his rights. The L.A. Police Commission, based on the city attorney’s interpretation of the ruling, closed all disciplinary hearings.

California law is among the most restrictive in the country concerning the release of information about police misconduct. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas have had “sunshine” laws for many years without adverse consequences to police officers. These laws require public records to be open. California law, by contrast, keeps the media and the public in the dark.

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Under current law, Bratton is prohibited from disclosing to the public the names of the officers involved in the melee and their disciplinary history -- for example, whether the officers had prior sustained force complaints. Thus, the public will have no way of knowing whether the Los Angeles Police Department is properly holding officers accountable. The public will never know whether the officers seen on videotape hitting an 11-year-old with a baton, pushing a news camerawoman to the ground, injuring a radio reporter or roughing up a television anchor will be held to account.

The public also will not have access to facts developed in the disciplinary investigation, special reports or witness testimony. The public and media will never know what happened behind those closed doors no matter how much the chief and the Police Commission would like to tell them. Inevitably, public trust in the LAPD will erode, and the chief will not be able to demonstrate how seriously he took the matter and held his staff accountable.

Nonetheless, there is something that can be done. SB 1019, introduced by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), would override the Copley decision. Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa support such an outcome. Backers of Romero’s legislation include the National Black Police Assn., San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey and other key law enforcement authorities.

Bernard C. Parks, former Los Angeles police chief and current city councilman, put it best in a letter to Romero: “Ultimately ... the public should have a right to know about how their government works and functions. Secrecy around citizen complaints and police misconduct will only result in greater mistrust of the police, poor police-community relations and ultimately less responsive and accountable police agencies. SB 1019 presents a step in the right direction toward addressing the problems caused by the Copley Press decision.”

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