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THE STATE : An Opportunity to Reinvent the Police Commission

August 13, 1995|Xandra Kayden | Xandra Kayden, a political scientist at UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research, is writing a book on the political structure of Los Angeles. She is the author of "Surviving Power" (Free Press)

Mayor Richard Riordan's new appointees to the Los Angeles Police Commission appear to be experienced and committed individuals. But whether or not they and the remaining three commissioners can restore their commission's credibility with and authority over the Police Department will turn on expectations of those involved. The new commission must learn how to navigate between the defined lines of authority within the department and the vicissitudes of politics.

Although the Christopher Commission reforms gave more authority to the Police Commission, it is hard to imagine how five part-time volunteers can make effective use of their new powers when overseeing as complex a city agency as the LAPD. There is the unfortunate example of the Board of Supervisors: a group too large for strong leadership and too small for shifting coalitions that would provide a better chance for compromise.

Whatever our Progressive forefathers imagined, it is clear that today's Police Commission can do three things. First, it can reflect changing political values, which is something that an organization as insulated as a police department has a hard time doing. It can pursue one or two policy issues, with day-to-day management remaining with the police chief and the final word resting with the elected mayor and City Council. Finally, it can represent the Police Department to the outside world, acting as its buffer to the council and mayor, and to the public, which clearly needs a better understanding of how and why the LAPD behaves the way it does.

The recent controversy over whether Police Chief Willie L. Williams lied about accepting gratuities in Las Vegas stemmed, in part, from the commission's accumulating frustration with his lack of responsiveness. From the outside, it's difficult to determine if the commissioners were asking too much, or he was answering too little, but it is indisputable that they need a better understanding of what their relationship to the chief should be. Is it possible for someone accustomed to line command to develop a trusting relationship with five relatively public individuals? We have little recent history to suggest so.

The relationship between the Police Commission and the City Council was similarly blurred by the council's reversal of Williams' reprimand. The commissioners thought they were above politics, but politics is not always a dirty word. In this case, at least, the council's greater experience and broader perspective justified their decision to overrule the commission, even though it led to the resignations of two commissioners. Neither action improved the chief's relations with the Police Protective League, but at least the council stopped the hemorrhaging.

The Police Commission is, in the words of a report by the last commission to serve under Mayor Tom Bradley, "both more than and less than a classic civilian review board." It has broader responsibilities in setting policy, appointing the chief and exercising general executive oversight than a review board, but it does not recommend discipline or exercise direct influence. Its relationship with the LAPD thus is open to multiple interpretations.

Such ambiguity accentuates the role of personalities in decision-making. The problems that plagued the two most recent commissions were, in part, the result of fierce conflict over authority and personal integrity. Policy appeared to be only a chip in the larger game of asserting rights. The Police Commission, now led by Dierdre Hill, and with the addition of Raymond C. Fisher and Edith R. Perez, looks very good on paper. When the two appointees are confirmed by the council, it will mark the first time that two women will serve simultaneously as commissioners, which could be an important milestone if we want more than the token representation that tends to make consensus difficult to achieve.

In lauding Riordan's new appointees, Councilman Marvin Braude, former chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said that "we are going to be on the verge of asking if running the Police Department is a reasonable thing to ask of a part-time board. We are pushing the state of the art on how to run a commission." The lessons learned here should apply to every commission.

Toward that end, the first order of business for the newly constituted Police Commission should be to clarify, for themselves and others, just what policy areas on which they expect to concentrate; how they are going to work with the chief to address them, and how they are going to work with those outside the department to represent its interests. If they follow through on Hill's goal of establishing a discrimination complaint capacity within the commission--which could help the Police Department become more responsive to changing public values--it would be a valuable contribution, as long as it recognizes the limits of its authority to exert discipline. Nothing should be assumed by the commission or the chief.

But the paramount goal of both commission and chief should be implementation of the Christopher Commission reforms as soon as possible. It is time to remember that the drama playing out within the LAPD and its commission has an impact far beyond the individuals on stage. It may be that a commission is not the way to go. It may be that the LAPD needs an even greater overhaul than the Christopher Commission envisioned. But Riordan's new appointments represent another opportunity to see if the current structure can work.*

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