YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Justice Department Action Makes Reform Urgent

The pressure is on, so city leaders must go the extra mile to show accountability and commitment.

May 16, 2000|MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS | Mark Ridley-Thomas represents the 8th District on the Los Angeles City Council, including the Leimert Park, Exposition Park and Green Meadows areas

The Department of Justice's decision to get involved in cleaning up the Los Angeles Police Department has given police reform advocates a reason for hope. Police reform has proved to be an elusive goal for those of us who have struggled over the years to give the citizens of Los Angeles the very best in law enforcement--safety, fairness, professionalism and service. Let's admit we came up short.

Police reform was formally inaugurated in 1992 with the passage of Charter Amendment F. With the advent of the Riordan administration one year later, priorities changed with respect to the LAPD. The new administration engineered a hasty expansionist agenda, playing to the fears of an electorate still in shock from the civil disturbance. Suddenly, bigger became better. Reform was sacrificed on the altar of safety, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Frankly, we, the decision-makers, could not muster the political will to keep reform on track.

Federal intervention does not feel good. It certainly does not look good. I believe, however, that we brought this on ourselves. This is not "big brother" coming on the scene without cause.

Those among us who are short-sighted will see federal intervention as a black eye, an affront. They will posture to try to deflect the stigma of bringing such shame to the city. They will say, this is Los Angeles, after all, and not one of those other jurisdictions that are currently under a federal consent decree.

This is an arrogant and foolish response.

Those who take the long view, as we all should, will weigh other factors. First, all residents of Los Angeles deserve the finest police force that our resources can obtain. Also, there are significant parts of the city that have never gained resolution for long-standing grievances against the LAPD. These events are buried in the collective consciousness of communities that yearn for justice.

In addition, there are newly arrived people in Los Angeles searching for opportunity and freedom who are instead visited by the very same terrorist police tactics they fled. Many have suffered in silence. Others have protested, but have been ignored by police supervisors, attorneys and judges.

Finally, there is the U.S. Constitution, the singular point of reference that binds all of us together. The rule of law and its equal application is fundamental. No police officer's badge can or should be allowed to take that away. The wanton criminal violations of constitutional protections by police officers has severely eroded public trust and confidence.

How do we get out of this? The road is clear: straight on. To what goal must we commit? Reform. The strategy? Straight talk and heavy-lifting. And the program? There is no shortage of proposals, from the Christopher Commission report to the more recent LAPD Board of Inquiry report on the Rampart activities. These reports are a good place to start. They deserve close reading again in order to carefully design a comprehensive reform program that includes civilian oversight and staffing and community-based policing.

The Police Commission's ongoing work in investigating corruption provides one example of what should be avoided. In a city as diverse as Los Angeles, the panel investigating Rampart for the commission is 70% white male. Quite a misstep. Equally important, although we were assured that the process would be transparent, no one that I know of has received a status report or an invitation to any meeting where the review panel is hearing expert testimony on any of the many issues it is investigating.

I believe that, in the final analysis, the work product of the review panel, marked as it is by exclusion and secrecy, will be seriously challenged. For all the good the Police Commission might do in overseeing the daily operations of the department--and I believe it is considerable--it has already shown us that it doesn't have what it takes to investigate this level of police corruption.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times poll, there is significant support--75%--for establishing an independent commission. What are we waiting for? A consent decree to make us do the right thing?

There is considerable work to be done. This is not the time for decision-makers to abdicate their leadership responsibilities. This is an unprecedented situation calling for an unprecedented course of action. Precisely because the pressure is on in a new way, we must go the extra mile to show accountability, commitment and extraordinary leadership.

It's time to stop pursuing reform in a piecemeal or half-hearted manner. It's time to reach out to others of like mind to build a broad-based coalition and to replenish the ranks. Police reform, this time, must succeed in order to make Los Angeles a better city for all of its people.

Los Angeles Times Articles