Arrested development?

First, the bad news: An audit shows that the supposedly new Los Angeles Police Department may be letting abusive officers slide, just like in the old days.

The inspector general's report, presented Tuesday to the Police Commission, examined a sampling of use-of-force complaints against officers and studied how they were handled by LAPD investigators. Just under half of the follow-up investigations were flawed, some seriously, according to the report. There appears to be more at work than just sloppiness; all of the key omissions or alterations of facts weighed in favor of police.

The point is not that the LAPD is chock-full of officers out to make wrists across the city ache by applying handcuffs too tightly (many of the complaints that spurred the 60 sampled investigations involved handcuffing). Being cuffed is rarely a comfortable experience, even under the best of circumstances, but handcuffing suspects or even witnesses for safety reasons is a routine matter for police. In all that cuffing, it is perhaps inevitable that some officers will use more force than needed.

The real concern arises from the way the complaints about handcuffing or verbal abuse -- or even disturbing allegations about excessive use of force -- are handled. Too often, they are apparently being dismissed without genuine investigation.

For example, one complainant said an officer slammed his head against a bench after he tried to write down the officer's badge number. There was a witness who backed up his statement, and some grainy video footage -- but the complaint was dismissed as "unfounded."

Obvious failures by supervisors were exacerbated by similar shortcomings in follow-up by the department's internal affairs group. Taken together, the complaints and the audit suggest that LAPD officials are deciding for themselves, without adequate investigation, that some citizen complaints are mere nuisances unworthy of serious review -- and that it is acceptable to fudge the facts to reach that conclusion.

Now, the good news. A crucial part of the review system is working. Inspector General Andre Birotte issued a public report that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. LAPD brass disagreed with some of Birotte's findings but accepted his recommendations for more training and better follow-up.

Police work, by its nature, involves force, and force may lead, in some cases, to abuse. Police reform is not a final destination; it is a continual process. The inspector general's report shows that there is more work to be done.

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