The Los Angeles City Council approved a measure Tuesday that gives civilians a greater role in how police officers are disciplined for serious misconduct.
Officers facing discipline will soon have the option of having their cases heard by an all-civilian panel, one of the most significant expansions of civilian oversight in decades. Voters approved such a plan in 2017 with the passage of Charter Amendment C.
The three-person Board of Rights panels currently include two officers and a civilian member, added in 1992 in the wake of reform demands after the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed. Back then, many officers opposed the idea of civilians judging whether they should be suspended or terminated. Police watchdogs assumed civilians would hold cops more accountable.
But the prospect of all-civilian panels has been controversial from the outset and has reshaped the political dynamic. It was backed by the powerful Los Angeles Police Protective League, which contends that officer-led panels—composed of top cops seeking to climb the ranks— are less likely to buck a chief’s recommendation of severe punishment.
Meanwhile, the change has been opposed by police reformers, who argue that civilians assigned to the panels don’t represent the diversity of the city. They also point to a city report that found that civilians tend to be more lenient in discipline matters than sworn officers.
The union, which represents about 9,800 rank-and-file officers, contends that additional civilians on the panels “provides fairness and transparency to the process” for officers.
Los Angeles police officers “want a fair and impartial panel to hear discipline cases,” the league’s board of directors said in a statement. “Civilians oversee the operations of the Police Department, so we believe it’s appropriate for them to also have a role in ensuring fair discipline.”
Council President Herb Wesson and Mayor Eric Garcetti helped champion the measure.
Thirty days after Garcetti signs the ordinance, officers facing discipline will have the option of picking an all-civilian panel or using the status quo of one civilian and two LAPD command staff members ranked captain or above.
Critics consider the changes a City Hall giveaway to a politically connected union that sets back reform efforts.
“I’m not surprised City Council adopted these suggestions,” said Melanie Ochoa, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “It was clearly outcome driven. They wanted to satisfy the police-union special interests.”
Police accountability groups have fought to keep retired officers off the panels and to allow the department’s inspector general to annually audit the proceedings. Both sides reached compromises on those stumbling blocks.
No former police officer can serve on a panel until two years after the ordinance takes effect. Once that moratorium ends, former officers must be separated from a police agency for five years before serving.
Actions of the panels will be audited, and the LAPD will submit a report to the City Council in two years evaluating the changes.
Under the current system, civilian members of the Boards of Rights are required to have seven years of experience in the areas of arbitration, mediation or similar work.
To expand the pool of panelists, the changes allow civilians to serve if they have at least two years of experience in human resources, personnel or labor relations, or another position that administers or adjudicates employee discipline.
Prospective panel members cannot have any “sustained allegation for misconduct related to employment.”
Complaints of misconduct filed prior to the effective date of the legislation will not be eligible to be heard by all-civilian panels.
Critics continue to call for greater representation.
At a crowded ad hoc committee meeting earlier this month in South L.A., Richard Tefank, the executive director of the Police Commission, vowed to conduct an “aggressive outreach” campaign to recruit and train potential members from all pockets of the city.