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Police Commission Must Seize the Reins

The panel must act immediately on the Rampart investigation. Chief Parks had no legal authority to exclude the D.A.'s office.

March 16, 2000|GEORGE DAVID KIEFFER and ERWIN CHEMERINSKY | George David Kieffer, a Los Angeles lawyer, was chairman of the Appointed Charter Reform Commission. Erwin Chemerinsky, a USC law professor, was chairman of the Elected Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission. He is conducting an independent review of the LAPD Board of Inquiry's report on Rampart for the Police Protective League

At a time when it is imperative that government officials work together to deal with the worst scandal in Los Angeles history, Police Chief Bernard C. Parks' apparent balking at cooperating with the district attorney has been unacceptable. Under California law, the district attorney is responsible for felony criminal prosecutions; police departments, in this and every case, must work with the prosecutors.

Parks' hesitancy at cooperating with the district attorney's office was a battle that he should not have fought, let alone have won.

However, this has been a test for the Police Commission. The Los Angeles Police Commission should have acted immediately to require that Parks and the police department cooperate with the district attorney.

Under the Los Angeles City Charter, the Police Commission is the manager of the police department and responsible for supervising Parks and ultimately all in the department.

By not ordering the chief to cooperate with the district attorney, the commission missed an opportunity to publicly reaffirm its authority under the City Charter. Unless it clearly reaffirms its authority, the commission risks losing any credibility it may have as an effective civilian oversight board. There was no legal basis for the Los Angeles Police Department to refuse to work with the district attorney's office.

The emerging federal prosecution was Parks' apparent justification for his reluctance in allowing the district attorney access to material concerning the Rampart scandal.

However, federal and state prosecutors often simultaneously investigate the same matter. The existence of a federal investigation of Rampart does not stop the state prosecutors. Nor does it in any way relieve the Los Angeles police of their legal duty to work with the Los Angeles district attorney. When there are concurrent federal and state investigations, the federal and state prosecutors work out any conflicts; it is not for the local police chief to decide who he'll work with and who he'll snub.

Indeed, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti could conduct the investigation through a grand jury and subpoena every witness and every document.

Over the past several weeks, disagreements between Parks and Garcetti over how to handle the Rampart prosecutions frequently have emerged. Parks apparently would have preferred a few relatively quick prosecutions of the identified corrupt officers. Garcetti seems to be considering handling this as a larger conspiracy case, involving more officers over a longer period of time.

Arguments can be made for either approach, but under state law it is clear that the choice is entirely the district attorney's to make. Police officers often may disagree with how a prosecutor is choosing to frame and present a case, but that never gives the police the authority to refuse cooperation with the prosecutor.

Parks now appears to be recanting his earlier position. But the choice of whether to cooperate is not the chief's to make. And when a chief of police exceeds his authority, it is up to the Police Commission to properly redirect him.

One of the key reforms of the Christopher Commission was greatly strengthening the Police Commission as managers of the police department. The Christopher Commission emphasized the need for civilian control of the department and put responsibility clearly and firmly in the five members of the Police Commission.

Now is the time for the commission to assert its authority. This is truly a defining moment for the Police Commission. From here on, if it does not act in a forceful manner, it will undermine the credibility of civilian control of the department. A failure to publicly and aggressively assert civilian control will reinforce the impression that only the chief is in charge, and the commission simply follows his wishes. In that event, the credibility of the Police Commission to handle the entire Rampart scandal will be severely undermined.

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