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For the Sake of the Department, Make a Deal With Justice

September 17, 2000|David D. Dotson | David D. Dotson is a former assistant chief of the Los Angeles Police Department

The time for resisting and posturing is over. The Los Angeles Police Department has been under political siege ever since the Rampart scandal broke, and now the U.S. Justice Department has reaffirmed its intention to sue the city because of alleged abuses by the department. As a result, more and more police resources and time will continue to be devoted to defending the department. The risk is that maintaining the organization may eclipse enforcing the law. Making a deal with Justice is the only way out.

Clearly, city residents are not receiving full value for their public-safety dollar. In March, the LAPD released a report entitled "Board of Inquiry into the Rampart Area Corruption Incident." To produce it, a broad cross-section of department management and supervision was engaged nearly full-time analyzing data and writing the report. Their regular responsibilities were given short shrift or relegated to subordinates. The department promises a second report next year.

More recently, U.S. District Judge William J. Rea opened the door to the possibility that the LAPD could be sued as a criminal enterprise under the RICO statutes. Among other things, this would allow lawsuits to be filed in cases up to 10 years old instead of the usual one-yearlimit on civil-rights violations. Defending these cases and the many others already filed because of Rampart will require huge amounts of police management time devoted to producing records and reports that plaintiffs' attorneys are entitled to receive.

This comes at a time when officer morale seems to have hit bottom and dissatisfaction with departmental leadership runs deep, according to an independent survey commissioned by the Police Commission. The full results have not been officially released, but one disturbing report of their contents suggests that some officers are avoiding field activities that might subject them to citizen complaints or departmental discipline. In other words, departmental policies and attitudes are interfering with the enforcement of the law.

Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, along with Mayor Richard Riordan, adamantly oppose entering into a consent decree with the Justice Department to ensure that the police department reforms itself. Instead, they seek a memorandum of understanding that would allow the department to oversee implementation of the reforms rather than a federal judge. Because the city's negotiating team and representatives of the Justice Department could not decide the issue, it's up to the City Council to make the call.

Parks' resistance to turning his department over to a monitor or judge to oversee his compliance with any mandated police reforms is understandable. He insists that if he is to be held accountable for the effectiveness of the department, he must have the authority to manage it in the way he believes most effective. This attitude is in keeping with his predecessors, who were equally reluctant to listen to people with differing points of view and similarly insensitive to how cops on the street take their cues from top-level pronouncements. Unfortunately, Parks' refusal to consider outside influence in the management of the department reinforces the "us vs. them" mind-set that facilitated the Rampart scandal and, before it, the pattern or practice of abuse that the Justice Department alleges in its civil-rights suit.

But Parks' use of his authority, especially with respect to his disciplinary policies, to eradicate corruption within the department is already the source of dismay to many in the rank and file. It's hard to believe that an outside authority would be even more alienating. Furthermore, Parks doesn't appear to understand that his continuing resistance to what appears to many as inevitable--police reform administered by an outsider--only prolongs the disruption of department operations and increases costs that might better be spent on providing police services to L.A.

Finally, Parks' fight against a consent decree undermines the boost his department received for its handling of security during last month's Democratic National Convention. For more than a year and a half, significant segments of the department were devoted almost exclusively to preparing for the convention, and the image the department carefully constructed and displayed was one that has resulted in an upsurge in morale and feelings of accomplishment within the ranks.

Entering into a consent decree, to be sure, would not be without its costs and demands on police resources. Records would have to be kept and reports submitted to a monitor or judge. Officers would have to be retrained according to new reforms. Management policies and practices would have to be rethought. While all this would impose an administrative burden on the department in addition to its other tasks, it would seem minuscule compared with the police resources that would be needed to defend the department in court against the Justice Department suit.

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