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Long Beach Council Rejects Call for Police Review Panel

February 04, 1988|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The issue before the City Council this week was whether to establish a civilian police review board. But it quickly became one of trust in Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley and City Manager James C. Hankla.

Both men received the council's firm support.

"In effect, this is a vote of confidence," Councilman Wallace Edgerton said in explaining why he was rejecting the proposal pushed by the local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People.

Edgerton and other council members said that Binkley, who was appointed by Hankla to manage the more than 700-member department, does not need anyone else looking over his shoulder.

NAACP leaders have accused the Long Beach Police Department of racial discrimination, and they recently asked the Los Angeles County district attorney and the county grand jury to investigate.

The council-appointed Public Safety Advisory Commission, after holding several hearings, recommended last December that its own powers be expanded so that it could serve as a review board.

Proposal Shot Down

But that controversial proposal was shot down Tuesday by City Atty. John Calhoun, who said the council lacks authority to extend the commission's power. Only a City Charter amendment approved by voters could give the advisory group the investigative and subpoena powers it requested. (Currently, the commission can only make recommendations to the council on public safety policy issues relating to police.)

The council did not debate the possibility of sending the issue to a charter committee for further discussion. Instead, the council agreed to have its three-member Public Safety Committee review one of the most common sources of frustration for the NAACP and others: the process by which people can complain about alleged police misconduct.

Frank Berry, a spokesman for the local NAACP chapter, said after the council meeting: "I've never seen such a well orchestrated effort to kill an issue."

Berry said he would have preferred that the council send the proposal to a committee that would consider putting a charter amendment on the ballot, or have the Public Safety Committee consider other alternatives that would involve some form of civilian review board. Instead, council members demonstrated "blind opposition" and are "unwilling to open their eyes" to alleged police harassment of blacks, gays and others in the community, he said.

Councilman Clarence Smith tried to persuade his colleagues to leave the door open to future reconsideration of a review board proposal if the public raises the issue again before the council's public safety committee. But most of the council members stressed that the concept of a civilian police review board, in the words of Mayor Ernie Kell, is "dead."

Berry said the NAACP does not plan to drop the issue and will attend the complaint-process hearings before the council committee, as well as pursue its request for an investigation by the district attorney.

Joining Berry in speaking Tuesday in favor of the proposal were various residents and representatives of organizations that included Long Beach Area Citizens Involved and the Gray Panthers.

To further their argument that a non-law enforcement agency is needed to review complaints of alleged police impropriety, NAACP leaders said they received 23 complaints during the last five months of 1987. They also contended that the department's five in-custody deaths last year is proof that a review board is needed, especially for cases involving a death or serious injury. Police argue that the five deaths, which included one suicide, are unrelated and each one has been thoroughly investigated by the appropriate agencies.

Opponents of the proposal told the City Council that such a review board is unnecessary and would lower police morale. Most of the opponents--including council members--noted that both the police chief and Hankla, who oversees the Police Department, have been in their positions less than a year. They also noted that major crime went down by 9% last year, according to department statistics, and they congratulated Binkley for the decrease.

"In fairness to him, in fairness to staff, we have to give the chief time to put his house in order," resident Ray Rodriguez told the council.

Vice Mayor Warren Harwood congratulated "the leadership of the Long Beach Police Department" and said "we're committed to justice in this community."

Opponents included representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Business Assn.-Chamber of Commerce and a speaker who read a letter from Nil Hul, president of the Long Beach-based Cambodian Assn. of America.

The city manager also said he objected to establishing a review board because, among other things, it would undermine his own authority, interfere with police operations, and cost taxpayers money. (In San Francisco, the cost to implement a similar review board was $625,000, with the annual operating expenses amounting to $825,000, according to Hankla.)

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