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Commentary

Strong Inspector General Is Vital to Reform

November 21, 2000|STEPHEN A. MANSFIELD | Stephen A. Mansfield served as a deputy general counsel for the Rampart Independent Review Panel

Last week three events coalesced to provide a compelling status report on the Los Angeles Police Department: A jury relied on gang member testimony to convict three Rampart officers on corruption charges; a detailed Rampart study recommended stronger civilian oversight to prevent future police corruption; and the Police Commission considered rules to weaken the oversight authority of its own inspector general. All this indicates a need for change.

Paramount is the need for long-term institutional recognition that effective civilian oversight of the Police Department is necessary and beneficial. This means that a stronger, better informed and proactive Police Commission must emerge. It also means that the inspector general's office must be empowered and supported by the Police Commission to perform its critical watchdog function.

Police reform should begin with the commission's speedy rejection of the proposal to strip the inspector general of his ability to receive confidential complaints of corruption and misconduct. The inspector general should not be required to disclose all confidential complaints to the LAPD Internal Affairs Division. The federal consent decree compels rejection of this proposal. Paragraph 150 expressly allows the inspector general to maintain the confidentiality of a complainant, except where unavoidable or contrary to law. The commission must obey the consent decree.

The LAPD Board of Inquiry and the Rampart Independent Review Panel agree on at least one point in their respective reports: the Rampart police crimes and misconduct went undetected for so long because early warning signs were ignored. It is precisely for this reason that the inspector general needs the ability to gather information from police officers and citizens who have observed misconduct. Without confidentiality, many of these individuals may be reluctant to provide important information because they fear retaliation.

The Police Commission should devise policies for its inspector general that are designed to detect, not deter, early warning signs of corruption. Obviously, confidentiality cannot be absolute; for example, when disclosure is unavoidable to investigate an allegation effectively or when it is required by law. But the proposed "work rule" that would require disclosure to the department in all cases is simply not in the best interests of effective oversight of the department and should be rejected. Furthermore, the inspector general must be permitted to act on the results of investigations and, where appropriate, refer matters to outside agencies for prosecution.

Finally, the relationship between the Police Commission, inspector general and department should be clear. The City Charter designates the commission as the "head" of the department with the power to "supervise, control, regulate and manage the department." A City Charter amendment created the office of the inspector general to serve as the "eyes and ears" of the Police Commission. The commission should not assume an adversarial relationship with the inspector general on behalf of the department. Nor should it act as mediator between the department and the inspector general. Instead, the commission and the inspector general should jointly formulate and implement their oversight policy in a coordinated manner in furtherance of their common goal to effectively oversee the department. Accordingly, the commission should take affirmative steps to ensure that its "eyes and ears" receive the information requested from the LAPD as part of its oversight function. The commission has the power and responsibility to compel such department compliance.

A troubling finding by the Rampart Independent Review Panel is that the department seriously impeded the work of the inspector general by failing to cooperate with the inspector general's requests for information. The panel's report found a culture of resistance to oversight within the department. The command staff treat the inspector general as an unwelcome intruder, instead of a partner in safeguarding the integrity of the department. This too must change--for the good of the community and the thousands of proud, brave police officers who, at great personal risk, perform their jobs well to protect and serve our community.

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