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Editorial: The main priority for LAPD’s next chief: transparency

A single protester argues with LAPD officers as others block an ICE van in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thursday.
A single protester argues with LAPD officers as others block an ICE van in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thursday.
(Los Angeles Times)

The next Los Angeles chief of police should make transparency in the department paramount. The chief should be the city’s leading advocate for swift and complete airing of facts regarding uses of force and discipline. Where state law blocks release of information vital to a public understanding of its police officers’ actions in the field, and its department’s policies, management and oversight of those officers, the chief should stand up and demand that the law be amended as necessary.

The need for transparency and communication lie at the heart of almost every critique of the LAPD. In communities where residents complain that officer response is too slow, and in those that bristle under what they assert is over-policing; where there is a suspicion that crime numbers are being underreported, or where officer misconduct goes unpunished — solving the problem requires policies and attitudes of openness and access to facts.

Transparency is not yet in the LAPD DNA.

The city has embarked on a program to seek input from L.A. residents on what they want in their next police chief in the wake of the announcement by current Chief Charlie Beck that he will step down in June, more than a year before the end of his second five-year term. Members of the Police Commission are in the midst of a six-neighborhood listening tour, and they have invited additional public input via an online survey that asks residents to select from an array of proposed leadership qualities, qualifications, priorities and other abilities and attributes.

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Like his predecessor, William J. Bratton, who spent much of his time at the LAPD under mandates imposed by the Rampart consent decree, Beck has worked to instill a culture of constitutional policing — policies and practices that have at their core an awareness and respect for the civil liberties and rights of the people the police serve. That includes criminal suspects, crime victims, the mentally ill, the homeless and witnesses.

Beck recently told The Times Editorial Board that he believed his signal achievement as chief had been ingraining that culture of constitutional policing into the department’s rank and file so that it would no longer be dependent on a reform-minded chief or an externally-imposed consent decree. The chief who follows him, he said, should be one who works to build public trust.

He’s right about that. Although Beck may be overstating the degree to which constitutional policing has become part of the LAPD’s DNA, he has indeed made strides in that area, and he is correct that the next chief must now work on public trust.

To achieve that trust, transparency again is the key. And transparency is not yet in the LAPD’s DNA, despite the access given to the inspector general and the oversight of the Police Commission. Part of the blame lies with state laws, or at least the interpretation of those laws.

It is no longer possible, as it once was, for the public to attend officer discipline hearings in much the same way the public can attend a criminal trial. It is no longer possible for the public to see records of proven misconduct charges. That access was cut off more than a decade ago. California’s law on access to police discipline records is more weighted toward officers, and against the public, than any other state’s.

Bratton, to his credit, stood up for a bill to recover that access, but it died due to pressure from police unions. There has been little such courage from chiefs around the state since then.

They will have another chance. Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, has introduced a bill to give the public access to police records of serious uses of force and sustained misconduct findings for sexual assault and job-related dishonesty. Police officer unions, if they follow their past practice, will oppose that. An LAPD chief should not just shrug and say “We’ll see what happens.” A chief who seeks public trust in the department should say, clearly, “Yes. I support efforts to improve public access to police records, and that includes this bill” — or else spell out what’s wrong with the bill and how to improve it.

Of course there are many other things to look for in a chief. That person should commit to making criminal justice reforms work rather than complain about how they make police work harder. That person should continue moving qualified and talented Latinos and women into the top ranks, where they remain underrepresented. And he or she should have enough wisdom to keep the respect of the rank and file, as well as sufficient courage to buck them, when necessary, to improve trust in the department.

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