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Charter Changes Pivotal in LAPD Power Struggle

Police: With chief seeking more authority over personnel, officers union drops opposition to civilian review of discipline.

June 25, 1998|JIM NEWTON and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Just beneath the surface of Los Angeles' charter reform debate, a historic struggle for power is being waged inside the LAPD, with the department's chief trying to solidify his authority and the city's police union taking what once would have been considered desperate measures to resist.

According to documents submitted to the city's two charter commissions and interviews with many of the principals, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks is hoping that a new City Charter will bolster his authority to discipline wayward police officers and civilian employees of the Police Department.

Parks has asked for more leeway in handing out punishment and for permission to exempt top jobs in the LAPD from Civil Service protection, meaning that his deputies would serve at his pleasure and could be removed at his discretion. The chief is also trying to push the cost of defending officers accused of off-duty misconduct away from the department and onto the 9,600-member police union.

Each of those suggestions would have the effect of tightening Parks' control over the LAPD, giving him broader latitude to hire, fire and punish. In the words of Deputy Chief Gregory Berg, Parks seeks "what most managers want . . . more management flexibility in running the department day to day."

Parks, who is fond of saying that the LAPD "disciplines too many and fires too few," has disciplined and fired his share of officers since taking over the department a year ago. According to LAPD officials, Parks has removed more than 20 officers during the past year--already exceeding the number of officers terminated in previous years.

With such an assertive manager at the helm of the department, the police union is fighting any move to further strengthen the chief's hand.

"It's not surprising, really," said Gary Fullerton, a director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. "The chief is trying to increase his power and authority."

The league believes its members, rank-and-file police officers, could be the victims of a stronger chief who shows such enthusiasm for punishment. As a result, the league is advocating a view that it once bitterly fought: handing over decisions on police punishment to civilians.

During the debate that riveted Los Angeles after the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King, the Police Protective League fought against any proposal that smacked of "civilian review" of police misconduct. So vehement were the league's objections that even the Christopher Commission, which recommended wholesale revisions to the way the LAPD handled discipline, shied away from proposing civilian review boards.

It compromised on the issue instead by recommending creation of a civilian inspector general, whose job in part is to monitor LAPD discipline and report to the civilian Police Commission.

Today, however, the pendulum on the civilian discipline issue has swung so far that Dennis Zine, a league board member and representative on the appointed charter commission, is proposing that LAPD officers, like other city workers, have the right to appeal any punishment imposed by the chief to the Civil Service commission.

If that proposal passes, it would mark the first time in LAPD history that the chief did not have the last word on punishing his officers.

The league also is suggesting that if Parks' recommendations are followed in other disciplinary areas, the Police Department's long-standing system of adjudicating serious misconduct complaints at boards of rights be scrapped. Even if the boards are kept in the disciplinary system, the union wants their composition to change: Today, one civilian joins with two senior police officials to consider the charges against an officer; the league recommends switching the mix to two civilians and one police executive.

Fullerton, the union director, acknowledged that the league once resisted civilian-imposed discipline, but said the past few years, in which civilians have joined with high-ranking officers to consider police misconduct cases, have convinced the league that it can trust outsiders to be fair.

"We thought it would be the death of our officers to have them judged by civilians," Fullerton said. "But that isn't the case. The one civilian is generally the only fair person in the process. It's amazing."

In a letter to the appointed charter commission, Parks took issue with the union's attempt to beef up civilian oversight over discipline.

"Research has shown that police discipline systems are most effective when control, responsibility and accountability remain under the purview of the chief of police," Parks wrote. "The current system has worked well over the years in involving the community in the department's disciplinary process."

If the union prevails, Parks said in an interview Wednesday, the chief's authority would be severely undermined, making the position powerless.

"You wouldn't need to have a chief of police," he said.

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