Dorner, openness and LAPD

Los Angeles leaders owe the public greater access to records and hearings involving accusations of police misconduct. Police disciplinary boards, where the most serious charges of misconduct are considered, were open to the public for years, and that helped the Los Angeles Police Department on its long trip back from ignominy to esteem. Their closure in recent years, as well as the department’s refusal to release the names of officers involved in shootings, threatens to undermine that slowly recovering public confidence.

Those arguments might be easy to dismiss coming from a newspaper -- it’s natural for an editorial page to favor openness over secrecy. This past week, however, L.A. has been reminded in the starkest terms that the price of closure is not just inconvenience for journalists; it’s the threat that the public won’t trust the institutions protected by such secrecy. Amid the extraordinary manhunt for former officer Christopher Jordan Dorner, whose online manifesto charges the LAPD with mistreating him and sanctioning racism, Chief Charlie Beck announced that the department was reopening the case that led to Dorner’s firing and examining his allegations. That move was made in full cognizance of the “ghosts of the LAPD’s past,” Beck said, and because of his concern that the accusations, no matter how unhinged, will resurrect the image of the LAPD as a racist and brutal institution.

The chief’s action places him in the awkward position of appearing to favor openness because an alleged murderer has dredged up some messy allegations. Instead, this horrifying episode should serve as a reminder that open proceedings are the standing rebuttal to false accusations. Just as allowing the public to examine allegations of police misconduct helped restore the LAPD’s reputation, shielding the department and its employees from such scrutiny allows those charges to fester.

Beck has publicly favored legislation that would allow greater access to records and hearings on alleged misconduct, but the Legislature has refused to pass a bill that would make clear the city’s right to do so. This episode should give new impetus to that effort. As the chief noted, he feels an obligation to “reassure the public that their police department is transparent and fair in all the things we do.” He’s right that the public needs assurance now, but it might not have if Dorner’s case, and every other case, been open in the first place.