The federal consent decree mandating reform of the Los Angeles Police Department was supposed to expire in 2006, five years after the city negotiated it with the U.S. Justice Department following the Rampart scandal. But in May 2006, the federal judge overseeing it ruled that the department was still not complying with several of its provisions and ordered that the court-appointed monitor keep watch over the department until June 2009.
According to the Police Protective League -- the police union -- the city has already spent more than $13 million for the monitor’s fees and expenses and more than $30 million in complying with the decree’s many provisions.
Now the Police Commission wants to spend more money to install digital video cameras in the LAPD’s fleet of patrol cars. Its members believe that the cameras, along with a computer database of every officer’s complete personnel information, will help satisfy the section of the consent decree that requires the department to “examine and identify officers demonstrating at-risk behavior,” such as using excessive force or displaying racial bias.
Many police departments across the country have installed video cameras in their patrol cars. The images they capture have provided evidence in criminal cases and have helped prove or refute allegations of officer misconduct. The L.A. City Council is weighing several contract proposals for installing cameras in the LAPD’s black-and-whites.
But many of us who work in the department are skeptical about how these video images will be used. And we have good reason to be. Consider: A recent internal audit of arrest reports concluded that a large number were unsatisfactory because they did not properly document whether Miranda warnings were given to suspects. On its surface, the finding suggested a dire problem. But a closer look at the audit revealed that there was hardly a problem at all. Department policy dictates that when a suspect under arrest has not been advised of his Miranda rights, the words “not admonished” must be written in a designated space on the arrest report. Some officers, however, used different words -- such as “not advised” and “not given” -- to report the same thing.
No matter, said the auditors. Because these officers didn’t use the required language, they had to complete follow-up reports spelling out what any fool could have seen was clearly meant in their original reports.
Now imagine the effect on police officers if this kind of obsessive punctiliousness were applied to the images captured by the video cameras installed in their patrol cars. It wouldn’t be long before officers reverted to the “drive-and-wave” mode of policing practiced during the tenure of former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks. Many officers regarded Parks as a heavy-handed disciplinarian, and rather than risk censure or punishment for breaking his rules, they backed off proactive policing. Total arrests declined 33% during his time as chief, and homicides jumped 41%.
The LAPD manual is hundreds of pages long and contains thousands upon thousands of individual regulations governing every conceivable aspect of police operations. In addition, special orders, training bulletins and all manner of directives are annually issued about such activities as how to park police cars in a traffic stop and how to answer a telephone.
If some auditor were to watch a video of me on any given day in the field, it wouldn’t take long before he would see me violate at least one of the orders. Police officers sometimes cut corners, not because they are corrupt or dishonest or lazy but because no set of rules and regulations, no matter how voluminous, can possibly address every situation they may confront on the streets. If you show me an officer who does things strictly by the book all day every day, I’ll show you one who doesn’t have much of an effect on crime.
Compliance with the consent decree may be a worthy goal, but it should not come at the expense of fighting crime. If officers believe that their recorded actions in the field would be as rigorously scrutinized as were the arrest reports, they might be less inclined to risk their careers by being proactive.
What’s disheartening to L.A. cops is that the need for reform seems the longest-running and most familiar narrative about their department. I’ve lived through many LAPD scandals during my career, including on-duty cops committing burglaries in Hollywood in 1981, the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and Rampart. These stories were exhaustively covered in this newspaper and in other media.
But how many people will recognize the names of Steven Gajda, Filberto Cuesta and Brian Brown? These police officers were murdered doing their duty during the time former officer Rafael Perez and other cops were committing the crimes that led to the Rampart scandal and the consent decree.
Randy Simmons, the SWAT officer killed Feb. 7 in a shootout in Winnetka, was laid to rest Friday. He has been justly praised in this newspaper and elsewhere not only for his on-duty valor but for his off-duty outreach to disadvantaged youngsters. But in a few days or weeks, he will likely be forgotten by all but those who knew him.
But the word “Rampart” will live on and continue to evoke images of a police department gone bad. Sadly, putting cameras in patrol cars to record “at-risk behavior” by cops is unlikely to lift the stigma of scandal that wrongly plagues the LAPD.
Jack Dunphy is the pseudonym of a Los Angeles police officer who writes a column for National Review Online.