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Bush Sees U.S. as Meddling in Local Police Affairs

Texas governor questions federal actions in response to written questions from biggest law enforcement union. But some leaders are wary of his strong stance.

June 01, 2000|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Texas Gov. George W. Bush says the federal government should not be in the business of routinely investigating and "second-guessing" local police departments, a position that stands in marked contrast to the Justice Department's aggressive role in Los Angeles and other cities racked by allegations of police corruption.

"I do not believe the Justice Department should routinely seek to conduct oversight investigations, issue reports or undertake other activity that is designed to function as a review of police operations in states, cities and towns," the presumptive Republican presidential nominee told the nation's biggest police union in a questionnaire obtained by The Times.

Such a policy, if Bush sought to enact it as president, would mark a potentially significant break from the Justice Department's efforts in recent years to investigate police actions and, in some cases, force broad reforms at departments in Los Angeles, New York City, Pittsburgh, the state of New Jersey and elsewhere.

Justice Dept. Targets Monitoring of LAPD

In one of its most sensitive police "pattern or practice" investigations to date, the Justice Department is now working to get Los Angeles city officials to sign a consent decree authorizing a third party to monitor the city's Police Department and imposing other safeguards. Negotiations toward the decree, part of the fallout from the Rampart scandal, continue today.

But the approach outlined by Bush, a strong defender of states' rights, calls into question the propriety of such investigations.

Bush said in a written statement that while lawlessness by police cannot be tolerated, "I also do not believe that the federal government should instruct state and local authorities on how police department operations should be conducted, becoming a separate internal affairs division."

Federal authorities can "assist" local police in resolving allegations of misconduct, but "these cases should be the exception, rather than the rule," Bush said. As president, he would work to support local police, "rather than constantly second-guessing local law enforcement decisions," he added.

Bush has not stated such a position publicly during the campaign, his aides said. His written statement came in response to questions from the National Fraternal Order of Police, which conducted written and in-person interviews with Bush and Vice President Al Gore in April and May as part of its political endorsement process.

As the nation's largest police union, with 290,000 members, the fraternal order's endorsement is highly coveted by politicians eager to tout their law-and-order credentials.

Ironically, FOP is now moving to endorse Gore, even though the vice president generally supports the Justice Department's police misconduct investigations. Union leaders consider the probes political "blackmail."

The police union's executive committee unanimously recommended last week that Gore should get the group's endorsement when the full board of trustees considers the issue in the fall.

Union sources said that despite Bush's opposition to the Justice Department's misconduct investigations, the governor fared poorly on several issues of even greater importance to the union--including collective bargaining rights for law enforcement personnel.

While Gore said he supports a national collective bargaining bill to expand officers' rights, Bush said such issues should best be left to state and local authorities.

One union source said that in his in-person interview with union leaders, the governor appeared "ill-prepared" to discuss the critical issue. And he came across as somewhat flippant when asked what he had done to help state troopers in Texas get more bargaining rights.

"He said, 'Well, we make sure they have a heck of a Christmas party.' That went over pretty poorly," the source said.

On another issue important to the union--allowing active and retired police to carry concealed weapons across state lines--Gore voiced strong support for the idea, said FOP national President Gilbert Gallegos. But Bush seemed uninformed, Gallegos said. "He was not fully aware of what that was all about," Gallegos said.

Union leaders were even skeptical of the governor's strong words on police misconduct investigations, suspecting that Bush was handing them "a line of bull" because he thought that is what the union wanted to hear, the union source said.

"Answers like that were seen as being meant more to appease us than anything," the source said. "There's no way that anyone can stop enforcing [federal misconduct investigations] and expect to be president for long. There's just too much of a groundswell of support."

Indeed, any attempt to curtail the Justice Department's power in probing police misconduct allegations--the product of a 1995 law enacted in response to controversy over the Rodney G. King beating--would be sure to provoke heated debate.

Bush Stand Seen as Reflecting Ignorance

USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who is conducting an independent review of the Rampart scandal for the Police Protective League in Los Angeles, said Bush's stand is "very significant because it seems to reflect an ignorance of what the Justice Department actually does."

Chemerinsky said "there are times when a local department is out of control, and there's nowhere else to turn but the federal government, and I don't see any recognition of that in his statement."

But Joseph McNamara, a former police chief in San Jose who is now a law enforcement fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said he found Bush's stance to be "a pleasant surprise" because the governor seems to recognize that the federal government has overstepped its authority in probing such cases.

"What Bush is saying," McNamara said, "is that local police should be under the control of local police. He's talking about what up until recently was a fairly standard federal role."

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