With the Rampart Division scandal, Los Angeles faces one of the most significant issues confronting every level of law enforcement in this country: defining the appropriate role for external oversight agencies.
Meaningful oversight reform of powerful law enforcement agencies generally comes as the result of scandal. However, this is not a sufficient condition for reform. The events of the next few months will determine whether the LAPD's inspector general and the Police Commission, both of which provide external review, are provided with the authority and resources they need to do the job properly. Unless they are, an important opportunity will have been lost, perhaps for years.
As in the past, the LAPD continues to question the authority of the inspector general's office to conduct its own investigations and refer criminal matters to prosecutors. Unless these powers are promptly clarified and the authority of the current inspector general, Jeffrey Eglash, is openly accepted by the LAPD, the ability of the office to do its job will be in grave jeopardy. More important, the public cannot be confident that there has been an independent search for the truth if the inspector general and the Police Commission are locked out of meaningful participation in investigating the Rampart Division scandal. This would do far more lasting damage to the LAPD than if it cedes some authority now to the commission and the inspector general.
Judging by the public debate so far, LAPD officials appear to believe that any strengthening of the inspector general's office constitutes an institutional affront to the LAPD, implying that it is not capable of dealing with misconduct in its own ranks. This is the traditional law enforcement response.
Yet this ignores the potential for enhanced public trust that can come from external review. The LAPD's main objective should be to maximize the wellbeing of the people of L.A., not to maintain its own prerogatives.
The issues involved in the Rampart corruption investigation are part of a broader national debate over the merits of internal versus external oversight of law enforcement agencies. This debate has taken place over the past several years with respect to the ability of the U.S. Justice Department's inspector general to pursue misconduct investigations in the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The same debate is now playing itself out in New York City, where the police department, with the support of the mayor, has resisted creating a credible and powerful oversight agency to deal with allegations of law enforcement misconduct in two high-profile cases--Louima and Diallo. The arguments employed by the FBI, the NYPD and the LAPD, although understandable, are fundamentally misguided.
First, it is argued that external oversight entities, particularly those with independent investigative authority, deprive law enforcement agencies of the authority they need to control the conduct of their personnel. The reality is that most misconduct investigations would continue to be--and should continue to be--handled by the agency's internal affairs office. However, an agency such as the LAPD's inspector general's office should not be limited to reviewing the LAPD's internal affairs investigations, but it should have the authority, resources and access to conduct its own investigations.
Second, it is argued that outside investigators cannot understand the internal culture of police departments or other law enforcement agencies and that such scrutiny is damaging to morale. That is a compelling reason to ensure that the LAPD inspector general's office is made up of personnel experienced in law enforcement who understand the culture without excusing serious mistakes of judgment, much less misconduct. Eglash is a former prosecutor with extensive law enforcement experience.
Third, it is argued that external oversight agencies lack the expertise to investigate the complicated issues raised by the actions of law officers. It is true that so far the LAPD's inspector general has not been provided with the skilled personnel necessary to conduct these difficult investigations. He should get the resources precisely so that he can handle these difficult matters well.
Without these resources, the inspector general is doomed to fail--and so is the system of oversight in which he plays a central role.
Oversight of law enforcement agencies is one of the most difficult challenges facing every level of government. Police possess enormous power to deprive citizens of their liberty and property and to do great harm as well as substantial good. The credibility of the LAPD is vital to ensuring that it continues to command the respect of all of the people of Los Angeles. In turn, that credibility requires that citizens be assured that police activities are subject to rigorous external oversight.
This issue will remain an important one long after the Rampart matter has been laid to rest. Los Angeles had the good judgment to create the inspector general's office when the last scandal engulfed the LAPD. The city should use the current scandal to give the inspector general's office the authority and the resources to do its job properly.