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How to Make Cops Accountable

LAPD: Los Angeles can emulate other cities' systems.

March 06, 2000|SAMUEL WALKER | Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is the author of the forthcoming book, "Police Accountability: The Role of Citizen Oversight" (Wadsworth)

Buried deep within the Los Angeles Police Department Board of Inquiry's 362-page report on the Rampart Division scandal is an extraordinary admission that explains what is wrong with the LAPD and suggests how to fix it. Chapter 10 describes 31 separate "integrity control systems" that currently exist within the LAPD.

Thirty-one integrity control systems? Clearly, the LAPD has no shortage of policies and procedures designed to prevent scandals such as Rampart. But Rampart happened. Obviously these elaborate internal procedures failed.

The LAPD's report is a long admission that it cannot hold its own officers accountable. What is needed is a fully empowered and fully funded citizen oversight agency.

Other cities across the country have embraced citizen oversight, and there is growing evidence that it helps to reduce the underlying causes of misconduct. Los Angeles does not have to reinvent the accountability wheel. It can readily borrow the best practices that exist elsewhere.

Particularly notable is the work of Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, which is increasingly recognized as a national model of police accountability. Among other accomplishments, Bobb's efforts have substantially reduced the costs of civil litigation related to police misconduct. The key to his role is that, instead of making scapegoats of individual officers, he examines the underlying management practices that lead to problems on the street. These include shortcomings in training, assignment, supervision and other issues.

In San Francisco, the Office of Citizen Complaints sends a steady stream of recommendations for policy changes to the police department. Through this policy review function, the OCC does not treat complaints as isolated incidents but uses them as a way of identifying underlying causes. The OCC has recommended policies on everything from crowd control to the proper techniques for arresting someone confined to a wheelchair.

In San Jose, the independent auditor examined the police department's citizen complaint procedure and made 24 recommendations for improvement. No single change makes a big difference, but the cumulative impact of all of them helps instill a new level of professionalism. The Portland, Ore., auditor, meanwhile, found that officers were using an unauthorized "distraction technique" in use-of-force situations, a practice thereafter banned.

Ongoing external oversight helps to transform the organizational culture of a police department in three important ways. First, independent external scrutiny helps identify the erosion of standards that the LAPD now concedes it failed to identify on its own. Second, periodic public reports provide a window into a police department that informs citizens and responsible elected officials about problems that need attention. Third, the experience of being routinely subject to external scrutiny eventually breaks down the sort of insular, hostile attitude that's at the heart of the LAPD's organizational culture. Police departments in other cities have come to accept the value of this independent perspective.

Almost 10 years after the Christopher Commission report, the LAPD admits that its own internal procedures have failed. It's time for meaningful and permanent citizen oversight of the LAPD.

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