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Strengthening LAPD's Watchdog

May 07, 2000

The LAPD Rampart scandal won't end neatly--assuming at some point it will end--when the last bad cop in this case is fired or prosecuted or when the last victim of a dirty prosecution is freed from jail. In the future, there must be regular internal and outside monitoring efforts to fix the flaws that allowed various forms of police misconduct to flourish. That will mean biannual or even quarterly progress reports that will be released to city officials and to the public.

There is already a model for this in the continuing public reports by special counsel Merrick Bobb on reforms in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, done without much objection from Sheriff Leroy D. Baca or his predecessor, Sherman Block.

Proof of the need for significant changes is all around us. So far, at least 30 LAPD officers, including four sergeants, have been relieved of duty, suspended, fired or have quit in connection with the department's ongoing probe. At least 67 criminal convictions have been overturned. Some 70 officers are under investigation for committing crimes, for misconduct or for covering up such activities. Investigators are seeking evidence of a criminal conspiracy in the LAPD.

But it's also clear that many others beyond the LAPD are tainted. Falsely brought criminal cases backed by perjured testimony and planted evidence do not proceed so smoothly to conviction without a degree of shoddy work on the part of defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges in rolling those cases through the criminal justice process.

That's why a proposal for legislative hearings on the criminal justice system here and across the state is a good idea, as long as it doesn't turn into the typical stage for political grandstanding. Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael P. Judge wants a "comprehensive independent assessment" of the county's criminal justice system. That's fine, as long as it takes into account public defenders who tell clients that it's no use challenging the police and the prosecutors.

Yet that won't illuminate special problems, such as those faced by the Police Commission's inspector general, Jeffrey Eglash.

One former federal government official described Eglash's powers and resources as "comically inadequate . . . for the job he needs to do." Another source pointed out that Eglash's ability to review police investigations amounts to little more than "professional hindsight."

Eglash is aware of his position. "I have no fixed term of office, no Civil Service protection, and I have to count votes every morning," Eglash said recently. "If I take on unpopular tasks, I have to worry about my job protection."

The five-member Police Commission, appointed by the mayor, oversees the LAPD and has set up an independent panel on Rampart. One of its eight working groups will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the Police Commission and also on the role of its inspector general. Strengthening the inspector general position even beyond the new City Charter protections may be a most important recommendation. There are no guarantees against future corruption. But the inspector general is in the best position to understand the internal needs of the department while never forgetting that it is the public's interest that must guide him in monitoring the LAPD.

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