L.A. police panel fails to disclose findings on use-of-force incidents
The Los Angeles Police Commission has failed to publicly disclose its findings on at least 240 police shootings and other violent encounters with suspects, despite a promise four years ago to be more transparent and post its decisions on the Internet, a Times review has found.
Included in those cases are more than 20 incidents in which a person died while in police custody and at least 46 others in which police shot someone, according to the review. Among the unreported decisions are at least a dozen cases in which the commission ruled that the officer had improperly used deadly force and should be disciplined.
“Frankly, we fell asleep at the switch on this one,” said John Mack, president of the five-member civilian panel. “We know it’s something that we cannot continue to neglect.”
Late in 2005, the commission instructed its watchdog arm, the Office of the Inspector General, to publish a report on every case in which an officer fires his weapon, strikes someone on the head or uses other types of serious force. The reports were to include a summary of the incident and the commission’s determination whether the officer’s actions were within department policies.
Commissioners hailed their decision to be more transparent as a “historic” move. Recent changes to state law and a major court ruling, they said, had dramatically restricted the public’s access to information about police officers. Though the summaries would be limited in the details they provided, they were the only available avenue for the media and public to glean the outcome of force investigations.
The commission’s rhetoric, however, quickly gave way to something less impressive.
During the first three years of the effort, the inspector general’s office produced public reports on half of the more than 320 cases that came up for review, according to a Times examination of the public reports and an index of all serious use-of-force incidents provided by the LAPD.
Then, last year, the reports all but ceased. Of the about 125 cases the commission reviewed since the start of 2009, 10 of them have been the subject of published reports by the inspector general’s office, according to the Times review.
The inspector general’s office did end up providing information on a few dozen of those cases in periodic reports meant to examine the department’s handling of discipline issues.
In all, however, The Times counted 240 cases in the last five years that have had no public airing.
“It’s inexcusable,” said prominent legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, who is dean of UC Irvine’s law school and has studied the LAPD’s civilian oversight. “It is so essential that the public be able to monitor this unique power to use of force that we give to police.... And these public reports are to that type of accountability.”
The failure is the result of staffing shortfalls that have forced the inspector general to prioritize other tasks, Mack said.
“It’s regrettable, it’s unfortunate. But the inspector general staff has just had to focus on other areas,” Mack said. “It’s going to take some time to correct this. But this in no way reflects a backing off on our commitment.”
The commission has made such a mea culpa before. In 2007, Anthony Pacheco, who served as commission president between Mack’s earlier and current terms, also said the backlog of reports was “regrettable” when asked by The Times. “Is it important? Absolutely.... We need to do better,” he said.
In cases in which the inspector general’s office has not published the summaries, the only information available to the public comes from brief, vaguely written accounts that the LAPD issues in the days after an officer-involved shooting or other serious use of force.
In June 2008, for example, a mentally ill man died while being restrained by two LAPD officers. The LAPD statement described the encounter obliquely, saying that “the man charged at the officers” and “was thrashing his body, yelling profanities and attempted to spit on them. As the officers attempted to gain control of the suspect, he lost consciousness.”
Because no public report of the death was posted, it is unknown what the department’s internal investigation determined to have happened and whether the commission decided that the officers acted properly.
The commission’s decision to issue the public reports stemmed from a 2006 ruling by the state Supreme Court that police personnel records were not public documents. Based on a broad interpretation of that ruling, the commission ended a 25-year practice of releasing to the public uncensored use-of-force reports that included the names of officers. The commission effectively replaced those more informative reports with the stripped-down, nameless summaries.
That move, coupled with the LAPD’s decision to close its discipline proceedings, made it significantly more difficult for news media outlets or interested citizens to track investigations. And, in cases in which the inspector general’s office does not publish public summaries, it is all but impossible.
Until they were asked about the backlog by a Times reporter last week, commissioners had not raised any serious public concerns about it since Pacheco’s comments. Then, on Tuesday, in his welcoming remarks to newly selected Inspector General Nicole Bershon, Mack called on her to address it and appointed a commissioner to keep tabs on the issue.
Bershon takes over a depleted staff responsible for a wide array of audits and investigations into various aspects of the LAPD’s performance. There are six investigators assigned to the office’s use-of-force section. They typically wait about 10 or 11 months for the LAPD to complete its internal investigation into a case and then must scramble to compile an in-depth review of the incident that commissioners use to make their judgments before a one-year statute of limitation runs out.
Bershon emphasized that investigators have never failed to meet this deadline. To do so, however, they must jump from one case to the next and typically don’t have time to write the public summary, in which names and other sensitive information must be redacted, the inspector general and others said. Two staffers from elsewhere in the office were reassigned in recent weeks to work on the reports, but Bershon declined to say how much of a dent she expects they will be able to make.
The commission plans to petition city officials for an exception to a city-wide hiring freeze in hopes of filling two vacant inspector positions and two supervisor jobs, Mack said.
Bershon’s predecessor, Andre Birotte, who was inspector general when the commission ordered the public reports and stepped down recently to become a U.S. attorney, declined to comment.
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