A growing number of Los Angeles police officers who have used excessive force, driven while intoxicated, falsely imprisoned people or committed other serious misconduct are being let off without punishment as part of a new, controversial approach to discipline at the LAPD.
Instead of handing down suspensions without pay, as was the norm for such offenses, police officials increasingly are putting officers on notice that another gaffe of the same sort will bring a severe penalty and possible termination.
The strategy, called a "conditional official reprimand" in LAPD jargon, is the centerpiece of a philosophical change to discipline the department has been rolling out slowly in recent years. The new model, police officials say, is more effective at improving officers' behavior and allows the department to get rid of incorrigible cops more swiftly than before.
But as the use of conditional reprimands has jumped dramatically — 14 were issued in 2008 compared to 109 in 2010 — they have drawn scrutiny and criticism from the Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the department. At a public meeting late last month, commissioners raised concerns over the use of the reprimands to resolve serious offenses, for which they believe officers should be punished more harshly.
"The way it's being handled minimizes the seriousness of these situations," Commissioner Alan Skobin told Deputy Chief Mark Perez, who oversees discipline. "If an officer commits a criminal act — the two good examples are DUIs and domestic violence — there is some real angst … when, basically, in the department the worst thing that happens is that they're being told, 'The next time you do that it's going to be serious.' "
Perez, who runs the department's Professional Standards Bureau, is the architect of the LAPD's new take on how to deal with troublesome officers. Under Chief Charlie Beck and his predecessor, William Bratton, the 29-year LAPD veteran began working to design a system that, as he often says, emphasizes "strategy over penalty."
"We have to lead as if we're going to progress past just punishing people and expecting that to get anything done," Perez told the commission.
In the traditional approach to police discipline, cops are given a punishment that is thought to be in line with the seriousness of the offense they committed. In rare, extreme cases, such as an officer convicted of a violent crime, a first-time offense can lead to the officer's being fired. It is far more common, however, for an officer to receive a written admonition or a suspension. Punishments are often incremental, becoming somewhat more severe if an officer commits the same type of misconduct repeatedly.
In the LAPD, for example, officers could be caught driving drunk three or four times before being fired, Beck said. A first drunk driving offense typically carried a suspension ranging from five to 10 days. The second time, the officer might be given 15 days off and the third time a special contract would likely be imposed to require the officer to attend counseling and otherwise behave.
Similar to the way prison sentences are used to deter and punish criminals, this strategy assumes that the threat of punishment will keep officers from stepping out of line.
Perez and Beck, however, do not believe this sort of discipline does much to dissuade misconduct. It is particularly ineffective, they said in interviews, in a department like the LAPD, where the union representing rank-and-file officers offers an insurance program that pays officers their salaries for days they are suspended.
"For the 35 years I've been in this organization, we've been trying to make this work and it hasn't been effective," Beck said. "It does not set consequences for the officers."
Instead, Perez has been pushing the notion that officers are more likely to change their behavior if they are made to think about their misconduct and how it undermined the department's fundamental mission of protecting the city, along with its reputation and the officer's own self-interest.
The conditional reprimands are a main component to this idea. According to Perez, when an officer receives one, he is supposed to have an extensive discussion with his commanding officer about the misconduct, accept responsibility and explain how he plans to change his behavior in the future. The terms of each reprimand stipulate what the punishment will be if the officer recommits the same or a similar offense. And, depending on the seriousness of the misconduct, reprimands typically remain in effect for three years, five years or for as long as the officer remains at the LAPD, Perez said.
Commissioners expressed serious doubts. Several objected strongly to a department report showing that between 2008 and 2010, 22 officers and civilian employees were given conditional reprimands for drunk driving, six for domestic disputes, two for using unauthorized force and four for false imprisonment, among other infractions.
"We need to make sure that this process does not distort our value system," Commission President John Mack said. "There are some categories where first time around there has to be something more harsh."
Nicole Bershon, the commission's inspector general, echoed that concern in a 2010 report highlighting the case of a supervising sergeant found guilty of using a racial slur against one young officer and screaming profanities at another at a crime scene.
Despite a previous similar incident in the sergeant's record, Beck opted to give him a conditional reprimand that called for a minimum of a 15-day suspension, a demotion or both if he committed a similar offense. Bershon's report criticized the decision, saying the penalty seemed too lenient "given the nature of the allegations, and the potential for liability and repercussions."
Beck and Perez have staunchly defended the use of the reprimands, dismissing the claims that officers are being let off too leniently. Beck reviews each case in which a conditional reprimand is used, they said. He said he considers each case individually and, in general, doesn't allow the reprimands to be used in cases in which officers use physical violence.
And they believe the approach is working. Perez told the commission that of the 196 conditional reprimands issued between 2008 and 2010, only three went to employees who committed similar offenses. Commissioners were not convinced, saying it was too early to judge the reprimands' effectiveness and that the department should compare the recidivism rates under the old system.
They balked as well at the way the reprimands have been implemented. They called on Perez to develop a clear set of guidelines that establishes the types of cases in which conditional reprimands are used and the specific conditions that are imposed on officers. They questioned, for example, whether the reprimands require an officer to submit to counseling and treatment after an arrest for drunk driving or a domestic dispute. The lack of such standards, they said, made it likely the department was being inconsistent in how it used the reprimands.
There are indications of such inconsistencies. Beck said he wants to use the reprimands to impose a policy of "two strikes and you're out" for drunk driving cases, meaning that the department would move to fire an officer after a second DUI. Last year, however, Bershon's office published a report that examined eight cases in which officers received conditional reprimands for first-time drunk driving offenses. Of them, five were told a second offense would mean being fired, while the other three were told they would receive suspensions.
Perez and Beck said they are optimistic they will be able to assuage many of the commission's concerns, saying a set of guidelines for the reprimands is currently being drawn up. They cautioned, however, that the authority to make decisions on discipline lies solely with the chief and said they would resist a push to set the rules for conditional reprimands in stone.
"We don't want to tie our hands. We need to be able to be flexible," Beck said.