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L.A.'s longest-serving police commissioner is stepping down

Robert Saltzman
Los Angeles Police Commissioner Robert Saltzman listens to comments from the public on his last day serving on the panel on Tuesday. Saltzman served nine years on the police oversight board.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Robert Saltzman was torn.

As a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission, he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to renew LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s job for another five years.

It was 2014, and Beck had proved himself a popular leader. But Saltzman was concerned by some of the chief’s recent actions, including a decision to only suspend a well-connected officer caught uttering a racial slur and a failure to promptly alert commissioners about officers who had tampered with recording equipment on their patrol cars.

Saltzman wrote two statements — one opposing a new term, the other in support. The second, he recalled, was just too difficult to write. It was enough to convince him.

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Days later, Saltzman was the only police commissioner to vote against re-appointing Beck.

The move was a signature moment for the longtime commissioner — an example, those who have worked with him said, of his willingness to stand up for issues he felt strongly about, even if he stood alone.

This week marked the end of Saltzman’s term on the five-person civilian panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department, capping a nearly decade-long run.

The 61-year-old became a distinct voice championing changes within the LAPD, urging the department to be more transparent and challenging top brass, including the chief. He was the lone vote last year against the LAPD’s controversial body-camera policy, faulting the decision to allow officers — but not the public — a chance to see the footage.

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He also advocated for improved relationships between police and the city’s gay, bisexual and transgender residents, both inside and outside the LAPD. Among his achievements was successfully pushing the department to sever its youth program’s ties with the Boy Scouts of America over the organization’s ban on openly gay leaders. 

Saltzman’s pressure on the LAPD at times ruffled department leaders as well as some rank-and-file officers, who cast him as an unfair critic. But current and former colleagues as well as police outsiders credited him with asking tough questions intended to make the LAPD better.

“A commission that doesn’t ask questions, that doesn’t press the department, that doesn’t occasionally disagree and ask for further changes in policy, isn’t doing the job of civilian oversight,” said Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “It’s just a rubber stamp. And Commissioner Saltzman wasn’t that.”

As the longest-serving member of the current commission — the only one to work with two mayors and two police chiefs — Saltzman was the board’s last link to a critical chapter in the LAPD’s history: the consent decree, the 12 years of federal monitoring, prompted by scandal, that led to major reforms within the department.

In a recent interview, Saltzman said he believed reducing use of force, improving relationships with black and Latino residents and addressing biased policing — essentially, “how the department is policing and is perceived in minority communities” — remains the LAPD’s top priority. 

“There’s been improvement,” he said, “but there’s tremendous work to be done.” 

Saltzman’s departure comes at a tumultuous time for the Police Commission. The board is pushing to curb the number of shootings by LAPD officers while facing weekly criticism from activists angry over the killings, reflecting the heated national debate over policing and race.

Cynthia McClain-Hill, an attorney with deep ties to L.A. civic leaders and community activists, will take Saltzman’s seat. 

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Craig Lally, the president of the union that represents the rank-and-file, said he believed Saltzman was too tough on officers when reviewing how they used force.

“I just wish he would have been more open-minded,” Lally said. “We just want smart, objective people to listen to the facts and not listen to the noise.”

Others said Saltzman was committed to constitutional, respectful policing and was known to praise as well as criticize police.

“He’s really a man who stands by his convictions,” said the commission’s current president, Matt Johnson. “It doesn’t matter to him whether it’s popular or not popular — it’s all about, for him, doing what’s right.” 

Appointed by the mayor, police commissioners serve a maximum of two five-year terms. They oversee the operations of the 10,000-officer agency, set LAPD policies and have an inspector general who investigates and audits the department on their behalf. In one of their most important roles, commissioners decide whether police shootings and other serious uses of force were appropriate. 

Saltzman joined the board in 2007, appointed by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. A Harvard Law School graduate and associate dean at the USC Gould School of Law who taught legal ethics, Saltzman had also served as vice president of the city’s Ethics Commission.

After Saltzman became a police commissioner, he paid particular attention to the LAPD’s nearly 50-year partnership with the Boy Scouts of America, which was running the department’s youth program.

The problem that Saltzman, who is gay, and others saw: Scout policies at the time banned gay people from being troop leaders, violating the city’s non-discrimination policies.

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Saltzman pressed for the LAPD to split from the Scouts and create its own youth program but faced resistance within the department. Saltzman said there was a breakthrough when the incoming chief, Beck, backed the idea, and the commission voted to separate from the Boy Scouts. In the years since, thousands of teenagers have participated in the LAPD-run youth program.

“It’s turned into a tremendous program,” Saltzman said. “That’s what makes me so proud.” 

Saltzman pointed to Beck’s support of the split as one of the positive things he’s done as chief, along with his efforts toward improving community relationships and stepping into a national role in the discussion about police reform. But, Saltzman said, he still has concerns over how the chief disciplines officers and how open he is with the Police Commission.

“There’s been some progress, but not as much as I would like to have seen,” he said. “He’s done some very good things, but those two issues, for me, are of overriding importance.”

Saltzman said he still stands by his vote two years ago to oppose Beck’s reappointment. That decision to break from his colleagues on the panel showed “tremendous courage,” said Richard Drooyan, a former commissioner.

Beck, who an LAPD spokesman said was on vacation, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Now that his time on the board has ended, Saltzman says he plans to take a break from public work, travel and spend more time reading to kindergartners at his neighborhood elementary school. 

On Tuesday, he was greeted at his last commission meeting with a standing ovation from his colleagues. 

Soon, however, the retired law professor was tackling the agenda at hand, again voicing a concern he has long expressed: how the LAPD handles complaints of biased policing, police parlance for racial profiling. Saltzman noted that once again, the department had not upheld a single allegation during a recent three-month period.

“This is an item that I have focused on since the beginning of my time on the commission, and one which I have found frustrating,” he said. “I simply wanted to raise it and urge the department and my colleagues to continue to focus on this.” 

“Absolutely,” Johnson said.

kate.mather@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @katemather

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