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It's a Police Commission, Not a Political Tool

Enhance the panel's independence and authority, perhaps along lines of L.A.'s Ethics Commission.

March 17, 2000|RAPHAEL J. SONENSHEIN | Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, served as executive director of the Appointed Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission

There has been much debate about how to investigate the Rampart scandal. Can the LAPD investigate itself, or is an outside investigation needed? Yet there is a deeper question that must be asked: How should the Los Angeles Police Department be governed?

Investigations, however valuable, come and go, but governance is for the long haul. The staff of the Police Commission has prepared a wide-ranging proposal calling for a thorough analysis of the structure of the LAPD. This is the right strategy for the long term. Consistent with that approach, some preliminary ideas on how the city might structure the governance of the LAPD are in order.

The City Charter assigns governance of the LAPD to a civilian Police Commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council. As amended by the voters in 1992 as a result of the recommendations of the Christopher Commission, and with further amendments in the new charter that takes effect July 1, the Police Commission has substantial powers. The Christopher Commission reforms also created the post of inspector general, a key pillar in holding the department accountable to civilian authority. Both the elected and appointed charter reform panels strengthened that post.

In formal powers, the Police Commission embodies the unusual, but deeply rooted, Los Angeles tradition of citizen commissions. Even its enhanced powers, however, have not been enough to compensate for the commission's fundamental limitation: a lack of independence, stature and authority. Whether the mayor is Norris Poulson or Sam Yorty or Tom Bradley or Richard Riordan, the Police Commission has essentially been a mayor's commission, despite the service of distinguished commissioners. That has been its weakness.

From the implementation of the current charter in 1925 until the appointment of Chief William Parker in 1950, the Police Commission was a tool of incumbent mayors. With their control of the Police Commission, mayors could push chiefs of police around. This power led to calamity and corruption under Mayor Frank Shaw, who was recalled by the voters in 1938.

With his political and organizational skills, Parker turned the tables. He dominated the mayors, who in turn dominated the police commissions. Elements of the Parker pattern survived after his death in 1966. Only the bravest mayors challenged the LAPD, and police commissions were generally only as brave as their mayors.

Because it has been seen as the mayor's panel, the Police Commission has at times become a surrogate target of the City Council. Twice in the 1990s the council used its powers under a 1991 charter amendment (Proposition 5) to overturn decisions by the Police Commission regarding the police chief.

In its exploration of the lessons of the Rampart scandal, the Police Commission might consider whether the structure of the commission needs to be changed so that its independence and stature can be enhanced.

Seeking comparable institutions within and outside the city government that have more independence might be a place to start. One possible model is the Ethics Commission, established by the voters in 1995. Its five members are appointed, one each, by the mayor, the council president, the council president pro tem, the city attorney and the city controller. The mayor can remove any member, but only with the concurrence of a majority of the City Council. Furthermore, decisions of the Ethics Commission are exempt from Proposition 5 review and modification by the City Council. A recommendation of the Christopher Commission that did not make it onto the 1992 ballot was to exempt decisions of the Police Commission from Proposition 5.

A restructuring plan that simultaneously reduces the mayor's and the City Council's power over the Police Commission, while keeping the appointment and removal roles each now holds with regard to the chief, would clearly signal that the commission is more independent. Such a plan would be consistent with the resolves of the Christopher Commission and both the appointed and elected charter reform commissions that the Police Commission offers the best long-term hope for governing the LAPD.

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