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LAPD Must Come Under Court Order

September 13, 2000|ERWIN CHEMERINSKY | Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at USC, conducted an independent review of the LAPD Board of Inquiry's report on Rampart for the Police Protective League

There has been no effective leadership in Los Angeles in dealing with the Rampart police scandal. Mayor Richard Riordan's rare public statements have not even acknowledged that there is a serious problem in the Police Department, let alone a crisis that led to the conviction of innocent people. Quite the contrary, the mayor has chosen to do little more than be a cheerleader for Chief Bernard C. Parks and the LAPD.

The absence of leadership for police reform is clearly manifest in Riordan's adamant opposition to a consent decree to settle a possible lawsuit with the Justice Department. In May, the Justice Department announced that it was prepared to sue the city for violating federal law and having a "pattern or practice" of police abuses. For the past four months, the city's negotiators have been in secret bargaining sessions with Justice Department lawyers.

On Friday, the city's negotiators sent a proposed settlement to the City Council that leaves several key issues unresolved. The most important disagreement between the city's negotiators and the Justice Department has been over the issue of a consent decree, or judicially enforceable order, which the Justice Department insists on. Riordan and his representative at the negotiations, Chief of Staff Kelly Martin, have vehemently opposed this and proposed instead a memorandum of understanding, which would not be subject to judicial oversight or enforcement.

The council can agree to a consent decree over the objections of the mayor, as long as 10 members vote for it. Each council member, and everyone considering the issue, must ask two questions.

* If the city refuses a consent decree and the Justice Department sues, does the city have a realistic chance of prevailing in that litigation? The Justice Department has said it will sue if the city does not agree to a consent decree. The Justice Department's burden is to prove a "pattern or practice" of police violations of civil rights; the police department's own Board of Inquiry report shows this. After carefully examining the LAPD for the past several months, including talking to dozens of police officers, I am convinced that violations of rights occur frequently. City Atty. James Hahn has stated that he believes that the city could not win the lawsuit, and I believe that he is right.

* If the city does not settle, would a judgment imposed by the federal court after the litigation be less onerous than the terms of the settlement? Obviously, there is no way to know for sure what a judge will impose. But from everything I have learned about the proposed consent decree, I have no doubt that it is far more favorable to the city than any judgment is likely to be. Indeed, my concern about the consent decree is whether it goes far enough in reforming the LAPD. Unfortunately, it appears that the city's negotiators often have seen their task as minimizing the reforms imposed rather than using the consent decree as the occasion for instituting desperately needed changes. If Riordan and Parks were not so stubbornly opposed to a consent decree, they would see the proposal as a great deal in imposing necessary but not overly intrusive reforms.

Opponents label a consent decree and an outside monitor a "federal takeover" of the LAPD. This is simply wrong. Responsibility for managing the department still would rest with the Police Commission and, for disciplinary matters, with the chief. But they would be required to do so in accordance with mandates for change. The history of the LAPD shows that, without judicial compulsion and oversight, meaningful reform will not occur.

In short, the city has nothing to gain by refusing a consent decree and everything, including taxpayers' dollars, to lose. Most important, the proposed consent decree would bring about many essential reforms of the LAPD ranging from instituting a system for tracking disciplinary violations by officers to dealing with the problem of racial profiling in police stops.

The burden now rests with the City Council to fill the leadership vacuum and enter into a consent decree. The council should open to the public what was scheduled to be a closed debate. There is no reason why the public should be denied access to the discussion on this crucial issue.

Six months of intensive study of the LAPD have convinced me that there are serious problems in the criminal justice system in Los Angeles, failings that place lives in danger and lead to the conviction of innocent people. A consent decree with the Justice Department is an essential first step to reform.

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