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Elections '92 : LAPD Disciplinary System to Undergo Major Restructuring : Police: Passage of Charter Amendment F adds demotion to possible punishments. Placing a civilian on review boards will increase scrutiny.

June 04, 1992|LESLIE BERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles Police Department's complex disciplinary system--widely viewed as the cornerstone of officer accountability-- will change profoundly under Charter Amendment F and should subject officers and their supervisors to far more scrutiny, authorities said Wednesday.

The police reform measure, embraced Tuesday by nearly 67% of the city's voters, will add demotion to the list of possible punishments, extend the period of time in which misconduct complaints can be investigated and allow disciplinary boards to consider old complaints against officers, even if they were not substantiated.

Most significant, perhaps, will be the addition of a civilian to the department's disciplinary panels, which review misconduct cases and traditionally have been made up of police officers only.

"Unless you're able to discipline officers for excessive force and other violations of departmental policy, such as racism, you'll have people feeling they have no accountability and can take these actions and receive their promotions and remain in good standing," said Warren Christopher, the lawyer and former diplomat who led the special investigation of the Police Department after the Rodney G. King beating.

Christopher, an architect of the amendment, called the disciplinary changes "a critical aspect" of the measure that received little attention during the campaign because they are complicated and difficult to explain to voters.

Police--whose union campaigned against the amendment--predicted that the new disciplinary procedures will inhibit officers from doing their jobs and exacerbate already low morale.

"Out of one side of their mouth they call us professionals and out of the other side they treat us like factory workers," said Lt. Rik Violano, who heads the team of officers called "defense reps" who defend their colleagues against misconduct charges.

Violano said one "really discouraging" factor is the new potential for demotion and loss of pay, not currently a form of discipline in the department. The amendment takes effect when the election's results are certified within a few weeks.

On the other hand, Violano said, many defense representatives welcome the prospect of civilian oversight of misconduct cases because officers "would like a more objective hearing as opposed to just the department's perspective."

Only a small number of the department's misconduct complaints reach a Board of Rights or disciplinary hearing, usually reserved for the more serious cases that could result in penalties harsher than 22-day, unpaid suspensions. A majority of misconduct complaints are handled at neighborhood police stations by officers' supervisors.

In 1990--the last full year for which figures were available--the department investigated 1,699 complaints, of which 1,015 were affirmed, said Capt. Eric Lillo, head of the Internal Affairs Division. Only 85 cases went before a Board of Rights that year, according to Violano's figures. (The number of those cases involving excessive force was not immediately available.)

Lillo said his staff has been meeting for weeks to discuss how the changes called for in the amendment would affect disciplinary procedures. But "how it will affect the department in the long haul," Lillo said, "will depend greatly on the leaders, both the politicians and the leaders within the Police Department."

Jerome Skolnick, a professor of law and a sociologist at UC Berkeley, said putting a civilian on the disciplinary boards seems a fair alternative to the civilian oversight board demanded by some activists.

"To my knowledge, this system has not been tried elsewhere, and it remains to be seen how successful it will be. At first blush, it looks quite promising," said Skolnick, who is writing a book about excessive force.

How the civilians will be chosen and who will do the picking still has to be hammered out by the mayor and City Council, said Senior Assistant City Atty. Frederick Merkin, who helped draft the charter amendment. Most likely, he said, a pool of civilians will be available to serve so that more than one disciplinary hearing can occur at the same time.

The civilian selection process needs to be detailed in a city ordinance, although most of the amendment's provisions can take effect without City Council action, Merkin said.

One patrol officer, Stephanie Tisdale of the West Valley Division, said she and other officers fear the civilians appointees will be politically tainted and provide little expertise to the disciplinary panels.

"It's like going to IBM and saying, 'These computer programmers aren't doing what they were supposed to. Let a police officer decide what they were doing wrong,' " Tisdale said.

But Skolnick suggested that the sole civilian on a three-member disciplinary board will serve "more as a check on the integrity of the panel" than an expert voice.

One thing seems clear, Skolnick said: "The Los Angeles Police Department has always been a very important model for other departments, whether for good or ill."

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