It's becoming a Los Angeles tradition: Whenever a law enforcement agency gets into trouble, a special commission is convened and a recommendation is made to hire an inspector general. Elected officials follow the recommendation and the inspector general gets to work. The public is mollified that "something" has been "done," and the politicians turn their attention to new issues.
But simply appointing an inspector general doesn't solve problems.
L.A.'s first experience with an inspector general came when the Christopher Commission recommended hiring one for the LAPD in the wake of the civil unrest that followed the Rodney King verdict. I was hired for the job and served for about three years, beginning in 1996. Now the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has hired an inspector general to oversee the Sheriff's Department, following the recommendation of the Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence.
The public perception is that an inspector general has immense power; that he or she can look under every rock, initiate investigations and issue hard-hitting reports that result in bad people getting fired. Sadly, it doesn't work that way.
There have never been clear statutory powers granted to an inspector general in Los Angeles. Because of that, the inspectors general for the Los Angeles Police Department and the Sheriff's Department might more accurately be termed "police auditors" or "police monitors."
A true inspector general would need the following:
• The power to promise confidentiality to those he or she deals with during inquiries. Without such power, an inspector general's private notes of interviews with complainants may be subpoenaed by the city or county to assist in civil lawsuits.
• A set, tenured term. In both the county and the city, inspectors general are "at will" employees and can be fired without cause. Tenure would enable them to issue critical reports — especially ones likely to generate controversy — without fear of reprisal. Such reports are often applauded in the beginning, when reform is wanted. But once a troubled agency is deemed "fixed" and politicians have taken credit for the reformation, they are likely to be far less receptive to critical reports.
• The power to initiate investigations. A true inspector general should be able to look at any facet of police operations and write a report on shortcomings he finds. The overseeing commission or board should not be able to shut down an inquiry.
• The power to release reports. A true inspector should be able to release the findings of any inquiries. No overseeing board should have the authority to keep a report secret.
• The power of access. There should be no nook or cranny within a police agency that cannot be probed by the inspector general. That means access to all generated internal reports, especially those produced by the internal affairs division, whether or not an investigation is complete. Inspectors general throughout the country, as well as in Los Angeles, have consistently complained that their access is often restricted, and there is no remedy.
Max Huntsman, the new Sheriff Department's inspector general, recently summed up his position this way: "I can't force change. I can't order the Sheriff's Department to do anything." He went on to note that local and state law gives the sheriff sole authority over his or her department.
Outside scrutiny of a law enforcement agency is in the public's interest. But inspectors general can't be fully effective in the current climate. What's needed is either local or statewide legislation defining the duties and powers of inspectors general.
Inspectors general in Los Angeles have been hobbled by political meddling and ambiguity regarding their powers since 1996, when the LAPD position was filled for the first time. It's time to recognize the importance of the position and pass laws that would give it real teeth.