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Commentary

LAPD Reform Begins With Oversight

November 17, 2000|RICHARD DROOYAN | Richard Drooyan is the general counsel of the Rampart Independent Review Panel

The Rampart Independent Review Panel's mission has been to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the policies, procedures and culture of the Los Angeles Police Department--a department suffering from a scandal of historic proportions. The panel was charged with assessing the causes of the widespread police abuse and proposing reforms to improve the department's performance, restore its severely damaged reputation and guard against future abuses of the public trust.

The panel's recommendations speak for themselves, but a few especially critical points warrant emphasis.

First, the Rampart scandal cannot be viewed merely as the product of isolated misconduct by a few "bad apples." Nor can it be viewed as merely allegations made by a discredited former officer. The scandal resulted from a failure of oversight, leadership, management and supervision.

Second, the consequences of the scandal cannot be overstated. It has shattered the trust that must exist between a police department and the community it is sworn to protect and serve. As the trial and recent convictions of the Rampart officers show, there is distrust of the testimony of LAPD officers. By undermining the credibility of individual officers, the scandal has undermined the public's willingness to cooperate with the LAPD and to believe the testimony of its officers. Over the long run, unless that credibility is restored, the department will be ineffective in its main mission of solving crimes and providing the evidence for criminal prosecutions.

Third, the scandal revealed weaknesses in the current system of civilian oversight. Indeed, it so severely has undermined confidence in the effectiveness of both LAPD leadership and the civilian Police Commission overseeing the department that widespread support has developed for a consent decree and the appointment of an outside federal monitor to, in essence, police the police.

Fourth, although the department has shown a willingness to institute the management reforms called for in its own internal Board of Inquiry report, it is not clear that the department is prepared to embrace reforms that are not internally generated. The department also seeks to marginalize the office of the inspector general, which is charged with overseeing, investigating and auditing how the police handle citizen complaints.

Fifth, the LAPD management has not embraced its officers and the community as partners in its reform efforts. Instead, there is palpable hostility between LAPD management and the Police Protective League, reflecting the resentment many rank-and-file officers feel toward the department's leadership.

In light of these serious challenges to the reputation and effectiveness of the LAPD, reform may seem a daunting task, but by no means a hopeless one. The review panel was encouraged to find that the vast majority of the department's staff is committed to changing and improving the LAPD. There is also strong community backing for reform. Moreover, the impending consent decree provides a promising framework for needed change.

The push for reform, however, must go far beyond enthusiasm and the promises of the consent decree. Notwithstanding the quality of the LAPD's officers and their commitment to change, the department cannot restore its reputation and solve its problems by itself. To achieve these goals, it needs the assistance and supervision of a strong, effective and, above all, independent and credible Police Commission to oversee and help shape the reform effort.

The process of reform must extend to the political arena in which the department operates. Under the charter, the Police Commission has broad powers to supervise the department, yet it remains weak and unfocused because of its part-time status. It should be substantially strengthened and given a full-time appointed president and vice president who are paid salaries commensurate with that of the chief of police and deputy chiefs.

A strong and truly independent commission is the public's best insurance that the department implements necessary changes. The Police Commission must ensure that the department overcomes its troubling resistance to the inspector general's requests for access to the information and documents his office needs to perform its charter-mandated responsibilities.

A stronger commission is equally valuable to the department. It would validate the department's reform efforts and support it with the public. A strong commission is necessary to restore the department's reputation and enhance its performance. Reforming the LAPD and preserving its integrity must be an ongoing process. While the specific reforms recommended by the review panel are very important, those reforms, and the purposes they serve, will only flourish if we significantly change how we oversee the department.

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