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Commentary

Cut Ambiguity of Inspector General's Role

LAPD: Change the City Charter and the police commission's approach to the post to ensure reform.

November 19, 1998|MIKE FEUER | Mike Feuer represents includes areas of the Westside and the San Fernando Valley and is vice chairman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee

Events surrounding the abrupt and contentious resignation of LAPD Inspector General Katherine Mader have triggered justifiable skepticism about civilian oversight of the Los Angeles Police Department.

The Police Commission must eradicate any doubt about its commitment to key Christopher Commission principles. Concrete changes in commission style and process are necessary, and they must begin at the top, or new leadership is in order.

Specific changes also must be made to the City Charter to bolster the role of the inspector general. One prominent proposal, however, should be stopped in its tracks: The elected charter commission should vote down the idea of a six-year term for the inspector general.

The balance of power between the Police Commission and the LAPD chief was of paramount importance to the Christopher Commission. Calling the Police Commission's authority "illusory," and noting a pattern of "simple acquiescence or even appeasement" of the chief, the Christopher report recommended steps to empower the Police Commission.

It emphasized the central role of the civilian commission's oversight of LAPD's disciplinary system. It established the position of inspector general as an instrument of the commission to "audit and oversee the complaint and disciplinary process." The Police Commission was to set the inspector general's mandate; the inspector general was to be the eyes and ears of the commission.

Patterns established now by the Police Commission and its leadership will set precedent for the future, and some of those patterns do not bode well for reform. A case in point is the recent directive from commission President Edith Perez and Executive Director Joe Gunn limiting the inspector general to post-adjudication review of disciplinary proceedings.

How can an inspector general adequately monitor the disciplinary system after the fact? Why did the commission president want to so limit the power of the inspector general? The subsequent retraction of the memo did little to restore faith in the commission's commitment to the Christopher mandate.

Gunn, apparently backed by a majority of the commission, made scathing public statements in response to Mader's resignation. That episode and a lingering concern about the commission's oversight of the chief have heightened anxiety about the fate of police reform.

These concerns could have been partially assuaged had the commission had clear rules for resolving conflict between the inspector general and department personnel. The only rules ever promulgated consist of a one-page document that grants "unrestricted access" but offers no remedy in cases of disagreement. This ambiguity could neutralize the inspector general's role. The "unrestricted access" in the rules clearly contradicts the memo from Perez.

Another cause for concern is the inclination of some commissioners to work out differences with the chief privately. This practice ignores the importance of open discussion about department policy.

That Chief Bernard Parks is a skilled and respected leader does not diminish the responsibility of the commission to lead a spirited, ongoing public debate on LAPD performance and direction. An effective department has nothing to fear from assertive citizen oversight, and the commission is duty-bound to provide it. But that alone will not suffice.

Charter amendments also are required to accomplish the goals of the Christopher Commission. First, the charter should be amended to state that the inspector general reports directly to the Police Commission. Neither the executive director nor anyone else should be an intermediary, or we risk undermining the commission's authority.

Next, given the confrontation over the Perez memo, the charter should reflect clearly that the inspector general has broad authority at any time to examine any records, witnesses or other materials.

The proposal for a six-year term for the inspector general should be rejected. Close reading of the Christopher report makes clear that the inspector general is an instrument of the commission for monitoring and, in serious cases, participating in the disciplinary system. The post was created to be independent of the department it scrutinizes, not independent of the commission to which it reports.

A term of office would insulate the inspector general from commission direction and accountability, removing the commission's ability to set investigative priorities.

Assertive civilian oversight of the LAPD and its disciplinary system are necessary to prevent a recurrence of the problems that led to the Christopher Commission. Amendments to the charter would help institutionalize such oversight, but changes in this commission's approach to its mission are just as important.

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