A battle for Beck
As he makes his early rounds, Police Chief-designate Charlie Beck is lending his support to an important principle that will go a long way toward defining his imprint on the Los Angeles Police Department. In an interview with columnist Tim Rutten and then with the editorial board of this newspaper, Beck made it clear that he believes police officers must be publicly accountable for their actions, and that he’s willing to support legislation to ensure that it happens.
Beck is a veteran of the LAPD, so he can well recall that for decades, the rules governing officer accountability were appropriately demanding: In cases of police shootings and other serious uses of force, the department routinely released the results of its internal investigations, including its findings regarding the officers involved. Similarly, officers who were charged with serious disciplinary offenses had the cases against them heard by departmental panels known as Boards of Rights, which were open to the public. Officers occasionally complained about being subjected to public scrutiny and criticism, but the department -- under chiefs as varied as Ed Davis, Daryl F. Gates, Willie L. Williams and Bernard C. Parks -- recognized that its fundamental responsibility was to the public it served.
Those rules changed in 2006, after the California Supreme Court rejected the arguments of the San Diego Union-Tribune as it sought records relating to the termination of a sheriff’s deputy. Although the ruling specifically noted that it was not addressing hearings, the LAPD took the opportunity to shut out the public anyway, arguing that it had no alternative under the reasoning of the opinion. Ever since, LAPD shooting investigation reports have identified officers only in code -- Officer A, Officer B, etc. -- and officers charged with serious offenses have had the evidence for and against them heard by Boards of Rights only in private, making a mockery of public accountability.
Twice, the Legislature has considered bills to roll back the 2006 ruling and to allow, though not to require, the LAPD to return to its more open past. Both times, the state’s police unions have bullied lawmakers into rejecting the legislation, despite Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s efforts to drum up support for it. Police Chief William J. Bratton was little help in that fight, nominally backing the bill but barely lifting a finger on its behalf.
Beck has not committed to supporting a specific bill, and he’s right not to sign a blank check. But he’s also made clear that he believes police officers forfeit some measure of privacy when they are issued guns and batons and authorized to use them. Moreover, while he is properly committed to forging a working relationship with Los Angeles’ police union, Beck also has recognized that there will be times when he and the Police Protective League disagree. This is one of those times. Beck should follow up his encouraging statements this week and endorse, support and lobby for a bill that will restore long-standing LAPD practices and meaningful public oversight of police.