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The Police Can't Police Themselves

LAPD: We need a total engine overhaul here. Strong civilian oversight is necessary for the department.

March 16, 2000|LAURA CHICK | Laura Chick represents the 3rd City Council District, which includes the communities of Encino, Tarzana, Canoga Park, Reseda, Woodland Hills, West Hills, West Van Nuys and Winnetka

Faced with the Rampart scandal, we can change the course of our city's future or condemn ourselves to repeating mistakes made in its past.

We must overhaul the LAPD's management and civilian oversight structure or invite future crises and financial disaster. We must bring to this department the same principles that voters wanted from the new City Charter: checks and balances, accountability, flexibility and accessibility. The department cannot be left free to run itself.

We know the horrible litany. Criminal acts committed by people sworn to uphold the law. Civil rights violated. Thousands of honest and devoted police officers humiliated and unfairly tarnished. But the biggest crime of all is that the LAPD has been managed and overseen in a way that will result in taxpayers footing a huge bill while not receiving a single benefit. What must change?

* Checks and balances. The Police Commission needs to have more power over the department, more independence from the mayor and less power over the inspector general. The part-time, volunteer commissioners are appointed and removed at the pleasure of the mayor, who also appoints the police chief. Commissioners ignore the mayor's priorities at their own peril. And no matter how capable they may be, part-time volunteer commissioners are an insufficient check on a department with more than 10,000 employees and a billion-dollar budget.

We also must take decisive steps to create a strong, independent inspector general--the designated watchdog, but who serves at the pleasure of the commission. Unavoidably, the watchdog learns that barking too loudly could result in unemployment. This must change.

* Accountability. Today, real community policing does not exist in Los Angeles. It got underway after the Christopher Commission's recommendation. While the department initially embraced the idea, the program was gutted. Despite loud citywide public outcry, and despite the City Council's imploring the Police Commission to not let it happen, the program died on the vine. Is this accountability?

* Flexibility. In any effective organization, when something is broken, you fix it. Today, the LAPD is having serious problems hiring and retaining civilian staff and new officers. There are so few new hires that the city is about to lose $8.2 million in federal funds because we do not have enough new officers to qualify for the money. Moreover, many officers are leaving for other police departments.

Chief Bernard C. Parks deserves praise for his commitment to rooting out bad cops, and no one is saying we should tolerate police misconduct. Yet when sergeants and lieutenants who used to supervise patrol officers are now chained to their desks investigating personnel complaints full time, and with morale plummeting and job stress skyrocketing, isn't the department's current approach to discipline possibly in need of reform?

* Accessibility. The department has historically resisted outside oversight. An example of this is its Board of Inquiry report on Rampart. The report contains 108 recommendations for internal changes. Real change requires more than an extensive and expensive internal investigation and discipline system. The recommendations will, if enacted, make the department more insular and less of a true community partner.

The LAPD must be answerable to the public it serves. While an outside investigation and the commission's review of the board's report may reveal much, proposals that tinker with a few parts but don't overhaul the entire engine will get us nowhere. The only responsible choice, from the standpoint of public safety and fiscally sound government, is to reinvent and properly implement independent civilian oversight of the LAPD.

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