A New Era Opens in the LAPD


The Rodney King Riots were a low point for the LAPD.Accountability and civilian oversight have transformed Los Angeles' police culture. But the job isn't complete yet.

The good news in L.A. these days is that the epic struggle to reform the Los Angeles Police Department, which caused some of the deadliest American riots of the 20th Century, and so fiercely dominated and divided the city, is finally nearing its end.

Thanks to the Christopher Commission reforms limiting the department's independent power, the 2000 federal consent decree, and the seven-year tenure of reform chief William J. Bratton, followed by the appointment of his protégé, Charlie Beck, the worst of the LAPD's insensitivity and brutality has been curbed. And its notoriously isolated paramilitary culture has been replaced by the inclusive spirit of community policing.

Above all, a new era of accountability and civilian oversight has taken hold, and the decades of LAPD officers routinely using excessive force without consequence appears to be over.

This last is a remarkable development for Los Angeles, where the LAPD's fearsome reputation was accompanied by the knowledge among its officers that no matter what they did in the line of duty, they'd be utterly unaccountable to civilian oversight.

Officer accountability, however, must be the bedrock under which any good police force operates. Without it, as the LAPD discovered during the violent response of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, you become a hated army of occupation. Scandal-plagued departments in cities like New Orleans, which are now attempting to right themselves, would therefore do well to examine where L.A. has been on the issue of independent civilian oversight, and where it is now and still needs to go.

IG: 'Nothing We Can't Look At'

LAPD's new Inspector General, Nichole Bershon, was remarkably upbeat about the cooperation she's been receiving from the LAPD when I met with her last month. “We monitor every officer-involved shooting-investigation from the moment we're called to the scene to its end; and take and monitor [citizen and other] complaints all the way through the process,” Bershon said. “There's really nothing today that we can't look at [within the department]. We ask for it, we get it. No discussion, no questions.”

Moreover, a number of the I.G.'s oversight functions have been codified into either the City Charter or the LAPD (operations) manual. The Charter, for example, gives the I.G. “the same access to police department information as the Board of Police Commissioners” (which sets department policy.) And the manual grants the I.G. the right to view the entire disciplinary file of all department employees, and requires that all LAPD employees “comply with any and all access to documents” requested by the Inspector General.

Additionally, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has continued an operational policy begun by Bratton: the development of an open-door culture of respect and cooperation within the department towards the I.G.'s Office (IGO).

Nevertheless, this is precisely not the time for Los Angeles to rest on its laurels.

The need for a a robust Inspector General's Office to monitor the department's internal discipline system, and to ensure that complaints will continue to be properly received, investigated, adjudicated and, when appropriate, punished has never been greater.

The IGO was created by a 1995 amendment to the City Charter on the recommendation of the Christopher Commission, following the 1991 Rodney King beating, precisely because civilian oversight of the department was judged to be virtually nonexistent. The principal functions the IGO was expected to perform include: oversight of the department's internal investigations and issuance of periodic reports to keep the department honest and transparent.

Since then, however, it has functioned haphazardly, at best.

Potential Problems

There have been and remain several serious potential problems. One is that the I.G. lacks the statutory powers of a traditional inspector general to act independently. Under the City Charter the I.G. works at the pleasure of the Police Commission, which has the authority, “by majority vote to direct the Inspector General not to commence or continue an investigation or audit.” (Emphasis added.) Moreover, the I.G. lacks traditional investigative tools such as subpoena power, and an attorney-client relationship with the Police Commission (which shields investigations).

While there's no reason to worry about Chief Beck interfering with the IGO, we don't know who will replace him, and what interests a new chief might represent. The mayor appoints the police commission which, in collaboration with the mayor, selects the police chief. If a newly elected mayor (and his hand picked commission) selected a hardnosed chief who allowed his officers to act unaccountably on the street (as the department did for decades in the not-so-distant past), and they backed that chief in stonewalling the I.G.O., what recourse would the I.G. have?

Such a scenario unfolded under LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, who took office in 1997. An old-school son of the LAPD's secretive, circle-the-wagons LAPD culture, Parks sought to emasculate the I.G., with at least the acquiescence of Mayor Richard Riordan and his first-term police commission. He denied the department's first two Inspector Generals access to information and access to witnesses, sending a signal to the department's leadership not to cooperate with them.

Information they requested and were entitled to would be send back incomplete or inaccurate, or only at the last moment, when the statute of limitations was about to run out. In addition, they were either barred from attending and/or contributing during use-of-force hearings adjudicating discipline cases.

The situation has changed since then. Bratton instilled a new sprit of cooperation with the I.G. when he became chief in 2002, and the federal consent degree forced on the LAPD by the U.S. Justice Department in 2000 additionally required the LAPD to adopt accountability policies, enforced by a federal monitor and judge looking over its shoulder.

That consent decree was lifted in 2009, and a Transition Agreement is now in place. Theoretically an I.G. could still go to federal court and get an order compelling a recalcitrant chief to comply with her requests. But not without creating yet another Los Angeles police crisis, and causing an enormous rift within the LAPD that would be catastrophic for an Inspector General's Office that depends not only on the letter of the law, but on the free, cooperative flow of information.

Bershon says she is now reviewing the Transitional Agreement, with an eye towards what “protocols the IGO is operating under that should be codified in the LAPD Manual or Special Orders.”

That's a start. But not nearly enough.

What's really needed is a full-throated, comprehensive effort to codify the I.G.'s rights, investigative powers and independence from the police commission, in a revised City Charter statute. As former federal prosecutor and Los Angles City Council member Jack Weiss recently put it: “The bottom line is this: can we rely on future chiefs as enlightened as Bratton and Beck? Are they the 'new normal' or exceptions to the history of the department?”

He might have added: can we rely on a new Police Commission not to close down or nix an I.G. investigation that might be politically embarrassing – or worse? The citizens of Los Angeles and its police department have been through too much chaos and heartache to have to again gamble on the answers to such important questions.

Joe Domanick is chief of The Crime Report's West Coast Bureau. A version of this essay also appeared in the Los Angeles Times on August 12.

Photo by Kevin Dean via Flickr.

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