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Look Beyond Officers to the System

LAPD scandal: Without iron-clad procedures to discipline abusive officers, we can never restore public confidence.

March 07, 2000|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Disappearance of Black Leadership," forthcoming from Middle Passage Press. E-mail:

In an interview shortly after his conviction in a federal court in 1993 for beating Rodney King, LAPD Sgt. Stacey Koon told an interviewer he acted the way he did because there were no clear policy rules of training or procedures on the use of deadly force by the LAPD when subduing suspects.

While some dismissed Koon's complaint as a self-serving ploy by a badly disgraced rogue cop, it was anything but that. In its damning report in 1991, the Christopher Commission identified 1,800 officers who had been the targets of citizen complaints of excessive force or the use of improper tactics in dealing with suspects.

Even more damaging, the commission singled out 44 officers who had six or more charges of excessive force against them, tactfully labeling them "potential problem officers." The officers were accused of beating, kicking and shooting suspects. The commission blasted the department for doing nothing to control or discipline the officers and for not holding their supervisors accountable for the officers' action. It recommended firmer discipline procedures to weed out problem officers and better screening procedures to prevent troublesome applicants from ever wearing an LAPD uniform.

If the LAPD Board of Inquiry's Rampart report looks like a well-worn carbon copy of the Christopher Commission's report, it is. The board's report also tells of officers at the Rampart Division who beat, kicked and shot suspects, and supervisors who did little or nothing to punish them. The big question is whether the Board of Inquiry's recommendations to tighten up supervision and discipline of officers will be fully implemented or ignored as many of the Christopher Commission recommendations were?

A follow-up report by The Times almost two years after the commission issued its report on these problem officers revealed that nearly all of them were still on the job. There was no indication that any of them had even undergone the intensive counseling or training that the commission recommended.

It took years and much pressure from the Police Commission and the Justice Department to get the LAPD to drop its resistance to a computerized monitoring system to better track civilian complaints and officer performance. The Board of Inquiry report noted that the system still is not working properly and that much data about an officer's performance and conduct is still not reported.

The Christopher Commission recognized that the overuse of excessive force was the single biggest problem that poisoned relations between the police and minority communities and sparked deadly racial turmoil and civil unrest. Without iron-clad procedures to swiftly and severely discipline abusive officers, it is impossible to ever fully restore public confidence in the LAPD.

Even the barrage of debate over what should be done to fix the LAPD primarily focuses on officers who lie, cheat and steal while lightly touching on what to do with officers who use excessive force. The shooting of Margaret Mitchell, a middle-age homeless woman, by an LAPD officer is a near-textbook example of this continuing blind spot. Even though Police Chief Bernard C. Parks said that the officer used "bad tactics" and the Police Commission ruled the shooting was "out of policy," there is yet no indication whether Parks or the Police Commission will do anything to punish the officer.

What it comes down to is that punishing officer misconduct rests exclusively in the hands of the chief. And there is nothing that can be done to compel him to take action against an abusive officer if he chooses not to.

The Board of Inquiry remedy is to concentrate even more power in the hands of the chief to investigate and discipline officer misconduct. In other words, only the chief should be allowed to handle this problem. This is clearly not what the Christopher Commission had in mind to deal with the problem of excessive force.

There must be a strong system of checks and balances that gives the Police Commission the power to mandate and enforce specific penalties for officers who overuse excessive force. The commission recognized that problem officers were not just a danger to the department but a danger to the community as well. Unfortunately, the Board of Inquiry report won't do much to alleviate that danger.

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