Fine-tuning the LAPD

The bad old days of the Los Angeles Police Department are mostly behind us. Thanks to the Christopher Commission reforms, a federal consent decree, the seven-year tenure of former Chief William J. Bratton and the continuance of his approach to policing by Chief Charlie Beck, the worst of the LAPD’s insensitivity and brutality has been curbed. Its notorious paramilitary culture has been replaced by an inclusive culture of community policing. And, most important, its officers can no longer resort to using indiscriminate force without consequence.

LAPD: Due to an editing error, an Aug. 12 Op-Ed said that when Bernard C. Parks was police chief, he sent a signal to leaders of other departments not to cooperate with the LAPD’s inspector general. It should have referred to leaders within the LAPD. —

In a recent interview, the LAPD’s new inspector general, Nicole Bershon, was remarkably upbeat about the cooperation she receives from the police. “There’s really nothing today that we can’t look at [within the department]. We ask for it, we get it. No discussion, no questions.”

That cooperation is written into both the law and police procedure. A number of the inspector general’s oversight functions have been codified in either the City Charter or the LAPD operations manual. The charter, for example, gives the inspector general “the same access to police department information as the Board of Police Commissioners” (which sets department policy). And the manual grants the inspector general the right to view the entire disciplinary file of each department employee and requires that all LAPD employees “comply with any and all access to documents” requested by her office.

Additionally, Beck has continued an operational policy that Bratton instituted: an open-door culture of respect and cooperation within the department toward the inspector general.

But even with all of this good news, the job isn’t finished. We still desperately need a robust inspector general’s office to monitor the department’s internal discipline system and ensure that complaints continue to be properly received, investigated and adjudicated, and, when appropriate, that punishment is meted out.

The Christopher Commission created the inspector general’s role after the 1991 Rodney King beating, at a time when civilian oversight of the department was virtually nonexistent. The commission envisioned that the inspector general would oversee the department’s internal investigations and issue reports to keep the LAPD honest and transparent. Those roles were enshrined in the City Charter by voters in 1995.

But simply creating the office wasn’t a cure-all. One problem is that the inspector general wasn’t granted complete independence. Under the City Charter, he or she works at the pleasure of the Police Commission, which has the authority “by majority vote to direct the inspector general not to commence or continue an investigation or audit.” Moreover, the office lacks traditional investigative tools such as subpoena power and an attorney-client relationship with the Police Commission (which shields investigations).

Although there’s no indication that Beck will attempt to interfere with the inspector general’s duties, we don’t know who will replace him. The mayor appoints the Police Commission, which, together with the mayor, selects the police chief. If a newly elected mayor (and his handpicked commission) selected a hard-nosed chief who allowed his officers to act without accountability on the street (as the department did for decades in the not so distant past), and they backed that chief in stonewalling the inspector general, there would be little recourse.

That may sound hypothetical, but it is precisely the kind of thing we saw under LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, who took office in 1997. An old-school cop who came up through the LAPD’s secretive, circle-the-wagons culture, Parks sought to emasculate the inspector general — and he had the acquiescence of Mayor Richard Riordan and his first-term Police Commission. Parks denied two successive inspectors general access to information and witnesses, and he sent a signal to leaders of other departments not to cooperate with them. Information requested by the inspector general’s office would be sent back incomplete or inaccurate, or only when the statute of limitations was about to run out.

Now that the federal consent decree has been lifted and replaced with a less restrictive transitional agreement, Bershon says, she is still reviewing what “protocols the [inspector general] is operating under that should be codified in the LAPD nanual or special orders.” That’s a start. But not nearly enough.

What’s really needed is a full-throated, comprehensive effort to fully codify in the City Charter the inspector general’s rights, investigative powers and independence from the Police Commission. Former federal prosecutor and Los Angles City Council member Jack Weiss recently asked an important question: “Can we rely on future chiefs as enlightened as Bratton and Beck? Are they the ‘new normal’ or exceptions to the history of the department?” The residents of Los Angeles and its Police Department have been through too much chaos and heartache to have to again gamble on the answers to such important questions.

Joe Domanick is associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.