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Opinion

Editorial: With an L.A. sheriff headed to federal prison, let’s not forget LAPD’s lesson in police reform

Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, center, walks with attorneys, David Hochman, left, and N
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, center, outside federal court in Los Angeles on May, 12 after he was sentenced to three years in prison.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

The beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the violence that followed a year later carved such deep grooves in Los Angeles’ collective psyche that it seemed only natural last year and again a few weeks ago to observe the 25th anniversaries of those events — and to reflect on how profoundly the city was wounded then, and to what degree it has or has not healed in the two and a half decades since.

It’s too often forgotten that the year of anger, outrage and fear culminated in a vote of the people that changed the city in ways at least as sweeping as those seven minutes of videotape showing King being hammered by four L.A. police officers. The vote, like the beating and the riots, should be commemorated and considered.

On June 2, 1992, Los Angeles went to the polls and adopted Proposition F, a package of reforms that stripped the police chief of civil service protection, imposed a term limit on the job and beefed up civilian oversight of the force. The changes — recommended by the panel of civic leaders led by Warren Christopher that investigated the LAPD in the wake of the beatings — were profound.

A structure that leaves one person with ... unchecked power is unsound.
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Since the 1930s, civil service rules had ensured that the chief could not be fired without due process. In practice, that meant he could not be fired at all, a lesson the city learned when the Police Commission tried to remove Chief Daryl Gates after the King beating, only to be blocked in court. Civil service shielded the chief from politics and patronage, but it also made him the most unaccountable figure in Los Angeles. Proposition F carefully recalibrated his powers, making him more responsive to civilian authority without bringing back the corruption and cronyism of the city’s early years.

At the same time that city voters were remaking the LAPD, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was being rocked by allegations of excessive force by deputies against Latino and African American residents. Retired Superior Court Judge James G. Kolts led a commission much like Christopher’s, and it too produced scathing criticisms and a slate of recommendations. But there was no public vote on recalibrating the sheriff’s power.

The sheriff enjoyed then, as now, something that in its own way is even better than civil service protection had been for the police chief: He is elected by the people. In a county of 10 million residents, mounting a successful challenge to the sheriff is virtually impossible — no living L.A. County sheriff has been voted out of office in more than 100 years. Until Sheriff Lee Baca’s resignation in 2014, sheriffs virtually selected their own successors and voters merely ratified their choices.

Voters never defeated Baca. In fact, he defeated them by getting a court to overturn a measure to impose term limits. Later, when reports came to light of Baca’s deputies beating jail inmates, Los Angeles responded with another panel of civic leaders: the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence. It issued solid recommendations, but like the Kolts Commission, it offered voters no measure to recalibrate the sheriff’s powers.

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Why has the county still had no Proposition F of its own? The office and its vast and unfettered power are an invitation to abuse. As L.A. was observing the 25th anniversary of the riots, Baca was being sentenced to three years in prison for obstructing justice and lying to investigators. Surely some recrafting of the sheriff’s office is in order. Federal prosecution is no substitute for proper civilian oversight.

The Board of Supervisors created an ongoing civilian oversight commission, which in its nascent weeks is doing an admirable job of raising issues and hearing complaints about Sheriff’s Department actions and policies. But it has no actual power. Even with a sheriff of integrity, as Jim McDonnell appears to be, and even with voters weighing in every four years, a structure that leaves one person with that kind of unchecked power is unsound.

Meanwhile, McDonnell’s effort to terminate some deputies for lying and other misconduct was thwarted — by the civil service system. LAPD officers last month pushed through their own ballot measure to roll back an important component of Proposition F and now will have an appeal process that looks a lot like the civil service process that deputies enjoy.

Given L.A.’s troubled history of law enforcement, some vigilance and attention to detail are important. So is remembering achievements like Proposition F, and replicating them where appropriate. Achievements forgotten can too often become achievements lost.

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