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Activists Accuse Panel of Undoing Police Reforms

November 18, 1998|MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of civil rights activists charged Tuesday that key police reforms implemented in the wake of Rodney G. King's 1991 beating are "being unraveled" under the current Los Angeles Police Commission.

"The relationship between the police chief and the commission is too cozy," said Connie Rice, one of the city's most influential African American attorneys and a former co-director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. The commissioners "do not know what's going on in this department."

The news conference outside the LAPD's downtown headquarters represented the most dramatic public assertion yet that the five-member civilian board is failing to fulfill its oversight responsibilities. It also revealed a deep fear among some department observers that the reform agenda proposed by the commission chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher is being neglected.

"I have no confidence at this point that the Christopher Commission reforms in terms of civilian oversight are being carried out by this commission," Rice said.

Members of the loosely connected but unusually broad group, which includes African American, Asian American, Jewish, gay and feminist organizations as well as former police commissioners, said they felt compelled to speak out because of last week's resignation of the commission's inspector general and the continuing controversy over that position's independence.

Their public comments Tuesday elevated the debate beyond the inspector general's position to a broader critique of the commission's role as the LAPD's civilian overseer.

In fact, several civil rights advocates Tuesday questioned not only the commission's commitment to the Christopher Commission reforms, but also that of Chief Bernard C. Parks.

"It is no secret that Police Chief Parks has indicated his antipathy toward many of the Christopher Commission's recommendations . . . having characterized them as mere suggestions by individuals who did not understand or appreciate what police work was all about," said Douglas E. Mirell of the American Jewish Congress. "We are concerned. That kind of mind-set is wrong and is dangerous for this community."

Commissioners on Tuesday denied that they have shirked their oversight duties, noting that they have adopted a number of reforms in the past year aimed at making the LAPD more accountable to the public.

"We are wholeheartedly committed to strong oversight," said commission President Edith Perez. "The proof is in the pudding."

In August, Parks told the commission that the LAPD had "closed or completed" 80% of the recommendations in the Christopher Commission report. He declared that it was time to "advance beyond" that reform agenda. Perez agreed with the chief, saying that the commission has exceeded Christopher Commission recommendations in several cases.

Reform Backers Are Riled

The chief's characterizations--and the commission's enthusiastic endorsement of them--still rile many police reformers.

"Without institutionalized civilian oversight, police accountability is illusory," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "The people of Los Angeles need and deserve real solutions to the problem of police misconduct."

A strong, independent inspector general, Ripston said, is one remedy.

Inspector General Katherine Mader resigned her post last week, saying that the commission had undercut her powers and authority, turning the position into a "fraud." The commission, through its executive director, said that Mader's work was poor and that the board had been "proceeding down a path" to fire her before she announced she would leave the job Jan. 1.

The group of civil rights activists--which included former police commissioners Ann Reiss Lane and Stanley Sheinbaum--called for new measures to strengthen the inspector general's office. Specifically, they said the civilian watchdog should report directly to the Police Commission and not to the board's executive director, as now structured in the City Charter.

"The independence of the office of the inspector general must be preserved, no matter if the LAPD police chief is Daryl Gates, who failed to serve the diverse communities of Los Angeles, or Bernard Parks, who has worked to make the LAPD responsive to its many constituencies," Ripston said.

As envisioned by the Christopher Commission, the inspector general was to be the public's representative at the LAPD, ensuring that citizen complaints and departmental discipline were handled properly.

In defending its reform record over the past year, the commission has established a new language policy aimed at improving contacts with people who speak little or no English; created task forces exploring hate crimes and tracking problem officers; and held monthly night meetings in the community. On Tuesday night, the commission also broadened its review of use-of-force incidents to include cases in which officers use upper body holds to subdue suspects.

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