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To Reform the LAPD, More Civilian Pressure Is Necessary

November 19, 2000|Susan Bandes | Susan Bandes, a professor at DePaul University College of Law, writes frequently about police misconduct and reform

CHICAGO — The message coming out of the first criminal case growing out of the Rampart scandal was stunning: Gang members were more believable than police officers. It's hard to imagine a stronger impetus to reform the Los Angeles Police Department. Barely a day later, an independent panel convened by the Police Commission sent the message again, in unmistakable terms. The deeply troubled LAPD has to start making major systemic changes now, and the city's political leadership needs to take responsibility for ensuring that this time the changes really do occur.

In the best of all worlds, the department would have long ago adopted reforms voluntarily. But there are reasons why it hasn't. Many aspects of LAPD culture that must be changed--its insularity, its distrust of outside criticism, its fear of scandal--are themselves impediments to change. But the bottom line is that political pressure to contain scandal, at least in the eyes of police commanders, has until now been far greater than the pressure to fix its causes.

The federal consent decree can help bring about departmental reform. But if the LAPD decides to fight the spirit of the decree, it can impede reform. The misguided proposal of a Police Commission member that its inspector general reveal the names of whistle-blowers to Internal Affairs doesn't bode well for much-needed independent oversight of the LAPD. Indeed, the latest report criticized the commission for its less than vigilant oversight of the LAPD.

The conviction of three LAPD officers for framing gang members should help communicate how much damage has already been done. As the police command absorbs the implications of the verdicts, it needs to hear a clear message from the community and its representatives that reform is long overdue.

Like many institutions, the LAPD fears scandal, and like many big-city police departments, it doesn't address this fear logically. One time-honored bureaucratic means of avoiding scandal is to portray every incident of wrongdoing--at least those that can't be ignored--as the isolated act of a rogue cop. Bureaucracies let blame settle down through the ranks until it reaches the least powerful player--the cop on the street. The command's reaction is not to learn from mistakes or address their causes, but to tighten discipline and punish individuals. And, at the same time, to fail to hold top brass adequately accountable.

The Rampart corruption scandal is, to be sure, a story of corrupt cops who egregiously abused their power and engaged in reprehensible criminal conduct. But this tale of a few bad apples is only part of the story. Stories of individual fault and blame resonate with our belief that each person should take responsibility for his or her actions. The problem is, these stories also suggest that the individual bears all the responsibility, and that the rest of us are in no way tainted by his actions. But in police departments, the story of a bad apple may signal a deeper rottenness.

The Rampart CRASH unit, for example, was portrayed as physically and even morally separated from the rest of the LAPD. Rafael Perez, whose disclosures set off the scandal, was repeatedly referred to not as a cop gone bad, but as satanic. It's more complicated and more difficult to say: Let us condemn these inexcusable actions, but let us also recognize that they expose a deeper sickness in the LAPD culture that must be addressed. This week's advisory panel report is just the latest confirmation of how deep the roots of the problem go.

Stories of systemic failure are difficult to tell and to understand. They usually involve a complex web of bureaucratic acts and failures to act. They are more often caused by negligence, passivity or risk-avoidance than bad faith or dishonesty. But systemic failure can have devastating and far-reaching consequences. The consequences of the Rampart scandal for the L.A. criminal justice system, for example, are apparent in last week's jury verdict that the credibility of police officers is no longer automatically granted.

One way to deny or ignore scandal is to refuse to identify patterns. The LAPD has resolutely turned away information that could have helped it identify problematic patterns. It didn't adequately screen new hires, even though the Christopher Commission, nine years ago, implored the department to do so. The LAPD's Board of Inquiry report on the Rampart scandal renewed the recommendation to institute psychological testing. Also, the LAPD too often turns away misconduct complaints (as it famously did with Rodney G. King), and should the Police Commission allow the disclosure of the names of complainants, it would further perpetuate the tradition of discouraging complaints.

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