Editorial: LAPD’s broken discipline system doesn’t hold officers accountable
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore and Mayor Karen Bass want to make it easier to fire or otherwise punish officers who have committed serious misconduct, and they have the right idea. Police must earn the trust of the communities they serve, yet trusting them is hard if officers can’t be held accountable for improper shootings, lying in official reports, being drunk on duty or other egregious actions.
Now there’s a chance the City Council may get on board, reversing a bad decision it made four years ago to “reform” the police discipline system that has significantly hampered accountability.
It’s noteworthy that the proposed change was introduced by an unlikely pair of new council members: Tim McOsker, formerly an attorney for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union of rank-and-file LAPD officers; and Hugo Soto-Martinez, a former union organizer who calls himself a police abolitionist. The fact that these two members have united to lead the effort to fix the council’s past mistake is a good sign and could pave the way for additional progress on contentious public safety reforms.
The LAPD’s Board of Rights hearings have long been the weak link in officer discipline. The City Council has another chance to fix the problem.
At issue is the Board of Rights, a three-person discipline panel with the power to reject the chief’s recommendation that an officer be disciplined. Thanks to the City Council, accused officers may currently choose all-civilian boards, which tend to rule in their favor more often and impose lighter penalties than traditional boards that include two high-ranking officers.
Yes, all-civilian boards are more lenient than boards with officers. This is counterintuitive, and it may be what led voters astray when they said yes in 2017 to a charter amendment that permitted the move to allow all-civilian panels. It may be where the council went wrong in 2019 when it adopted an ordinance to put civilian boards in place. On first glance, it might make sense to assume that more civilian review of police actions would mean greater accountability.
But there’s a deep file of studies, audits and reports that demonstrate the opposite in the case of the Board of Rights, in part because of who those civilians are. They’re not a jury, chosen at random from among the public. They are pulled from a pool of applicants recruited and selected by Police Commission staff and are often experts in employment law or mediation.
That may be a fine approach for, say, a sanitation worker accused of lying to the boss. But police officer performance must be judged in light of the fact that they have sworn an oath to uphold the law and have the power to use lethal force against members of the public. Dishonesty that might be irritating in a non-sworn city worker is dangerous and potentially deadly in a police officer.
Plus, police are organized in a quasi-military structure with a chain of command. There is little point in selecting a chief to lead the department if the city undermines his authority to hold officers to account for misconduct. That’s why Moore wants to eliminate all-civilian boards.
After Los Angeles voters approved a ballot measure to remake a key part of the police disciplinary process, City Council President Herb Wesson promised a series of hearings around the city on LAPD reform and the kinds of complaints about policing that have riveted the nation’s attention over the last several years: Excessive force.
L.A. needs the proper balance between a civil service system that would make it practically impossible to remove a bad officer and a patronage system, like the one L.A. had before the Board of Rights and other reforms were adopted in the 1930s.
It’s clear that the all-civilian board is not that balance. Records from the last four years show that officers who commit what ought to be obvious firing offenses, like losing control of a weapon due to anger or drunkenness, are treated gingerly, to the chagrin of Moore and civil rights activists alike.
Certainly it was better before 2019, when there was only one civilian drawn from the pool to sit on the Board of Rights with two high-ranking officers. But that doesn’t mean it was the best we can do. The same City Council that rushed Charter Amendment C onto the ballot and then adopted the all-civilian board ordinance also promised an in-depth review and broad discussion of police discipline and accountability.
Endorsement: Measure C pretends to be about police reform. Instead, it’s a noxious sleight of hand. Vote no
Seldom has an effort to alter Los Angeles’ governing blueprint been as clever and underhanded as Charter Amendment C, a little-noticed measure on the little-noticed May 16 city ballot that would change how police officers are disciplined for misconduct.
That was never done, but it can be carried out now with the leadership of the new council members. McOsker and Soto-Martinez wisely included in their motion a request to study alternatives, including binding arbitration, expanding the civilian pool of Board of Rights members and changing the selection process, and allowing the chief to immediately fire an officer for grievous misconduct.
That’s the way it worked in Memphis, Tenn., after video showed officers beating Tyre Nichols to death last month. It’s also the way it works at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. But as with all-civilian boards, the council must — this time — seriously study the alternatives to understand what will be best for Los Angeles.
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