Get on with disclosure

When the Los Angeles City Council does something particularly stupid, there’s usually money or personal ambition involved.

There’s a bit of each in the lawmakers’ unanimous decision to obstruct implementation of the federal consent decree under which the Los Angeles Police Department has been operating for the last seven years. That agreement, you may recall, was negotiated and ratified during the Rampart police scandal, when the U.S. Department of Justice was threatening to sue the city because the LAPD had “a pattern and practice” of violating people’s civil rights in fairly basic ways -- such as stealing from them, framing them for crimes they didn’t commit and shooting them for no better reason than the officers’ corrupt convenience.

The feds felt this situation had festered because the mayor and City Council had irresponsibly failed to either supervise or reform the LAPD. (The passive complicity in police corruption by the district attorney’s office and so many Criminal Court judges was -- unfortunately -- beyond the scope of Justice’s inquiry.)

So now, a U.S. District Court judge, Gary A. Feess, and an outside monitor oversee the LAPD’s reform. After a halting start, there’s been better than substantial progress, and the city may be within a year of regaining control of its own police force -- and of realizing the substantial financial savings that would follow satisfaction of the decree (because those involved in administering it could go back to other work).

Or, at least that was the case until the City Council decided to get involved.

One among the handful of reforms yet to be made is the adoption of regular financial disclosure by the 600 or so anti-gang and narcotics officers whose duties require them to regularly handle drugs, money and other contraband. Every two years, those officers would be required to disclose personal financial data to the department, such as outside income, real estate holdings, stocks, debts and their bank balances -- including accounts they share with other people. Officers who already are in these units wouldn’t have to comply until two years after the reform takes effect.

The reasons for such disclosure are too obvious to belabor, and the fact is that federal law enforcement officers are already required to provide such financial information. That’s partly why the Police Commission approved implementation of the financial disclosure reform. Then, last week, the council intervened, overturning the commission’s decision and taking jurisdiction of the issue for itself.

Why? Well, here’s one reason. Councilman Jack Weiss, who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee, introduced the motion to obstruct implementation. Weiss hopes to be city attorney when he grows up, and he wants the endorsement of the Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers and that vehemently opposes this reform -- as it has opposed every other reasonable reform dating to abolition of interrogation by rubber hose. Pandering to the league is an old L.A. political tradition, rather like shaking down property developers. That’s why Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who also is up for reelection, has written a letter alleging that adoption of financial disclosure would subject officers to the danger of “identity theft,” one of the league’s several preposterous allegations.

What a lot of baloney.

Weiss and his committee, which also includes failed former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks (whose antipathy to his successful successor, Bill Bratton, who supports the provision, is as immutable as nature’s law), will hold hearings today on the disclosure requirement. Given the cast and setting, one ought not expect too much.

Here, however, are a few points Weiss and his committee might consider, if they’re not too tired from spit-shinning the league’s shoes.

The City Council already has approved this reform. On Nov. 2, 2000, it voted to ratify the consent decree as negotiated. Paragraph 132 of that document states: “The LAPD shall require regular and periodic financial disclosures by all LAPD officers and other LAPD employees who routinely handle valuable contraband or cash.”

In other words, the city is only being asked to make good on its word. How could the supervising federal judge regard failure to do so as anything but evidence of recalcitrance and bad faith?

The hysteria the league has tried to whip up over this reform is worse than absurd. Does anyone on the council seriously believe that officers’ safety will be endangered because personnel information will leak to criminals, as the league alleges? If the LAPD is such an incompetent custodian of its personnel records, then perhaps officers should be allowed to keep their home addresses private as well. That’s a matter of physical security, after all. Moreover, after several calls to Parker Center, nobody at LAPD headquarters could recall a single example in which personal information concerning any officer leaked from there to a criminal.

Finally, and most absurdly, the fact of the matter is that the LAPD already requires that applicants to its academy disclose nearly all this information and agree to undergo a credit check. This reform simply would allow the department to update that information, if and when officers moved into certain specialized units.

Meanwhile, as Weiss and his council colleagues fiddle, it’s not hard to imagine Feess sitting in the federal court doing a slow burn. His day job in recent weeks has been presiding over the trial of LAPD officers accused of participation in disgraced cop Ruben Palomares’ gang. They wore their uniforms and drove black-and-whites to the homes of drug dealers whose cash they allegedly stole and whose dope they allegedly lifted and resold.

Weiss and his colleagues ought to go play politics somewhere else, and leave this serious business to a chief and police commissioners who finally are doing the hard work of reform the council so long neglected.