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Commentary

Consent Decree Doesn't Equal Reform

September 19, 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

Aconsent decree between the city of Los Angeles and the U.S. Department of Justice, which now seems very likely, must be regarded as just the first step in the process of reforming the Los Angeles Police Department.

The consent decree imposes many essential changes in the LAPD, but there also are many reforms that are not included within it. Some were taken off the table during negotiations and others would require changes in the City Charter. Also, the consent decree focuses exclusively on the LAPD and there remains the need to examine the entire criminal justice system in Los Angeles that convicted innocent people. The greatest danger of the consent decree is that it will create a false sense that the problems that led to the Rampart scandal have been completely solved.

Four major steps must be taken in reforming the Police Department and ensuring that Rampart-like scandals never happen again. First, the City Council must quickly ratify the consent decree. This now seems very likely. It appears there are 11 votes for the consent decree in the City Council--10 are needed--and Mayor Richard Riordan now says he will support it.

However, there still is a long way to go before entering into and then implementing a consent decree. One potential danger is if the City Council attempts to make major changes in it. There undoubtedly will be a strong and understandable temptation for the council to do so because the consent decree is the product of secret negotiation sessions from which the council, the public and the police union were excluded. There are many additional reforms that could be made a part of the consent decree. But adding substantial new items, however desirable, likely would protract the negotiations and risk collapsing a very fragile agreement.

The City Council is better off focusing its immediate attention on resolving the few remaining open issues regarding the consent decree, such as the role of the outside monitor, clear standards for police encounters with mentally ill individuals and a procedure for gathering data on the extent of racial profiling by Los Angeles police officers.

Second, once the consent decree becomes final, the City Council should turn its attention to additional reforms that are within its power and that of the Police Commission. There are many places where the proposed consent decree does not go far enough. Surprisingly, there are no additional safeguards for whistle-blowers, such as protection from reprisals for reporting wrongdoing and assuring the ability to speak in confidence to the inspector general.

Also, the consent decree relies on LAPD's Internal Affairs to investigate wrongdoing but fails to provide for essential reforms of that division. Internal Affairs has been a large part of the problem. It cannot be the solution without changes, such as creating civilian oversight for it.

There also is nothing in the consent decree that deals with the urgent need for increased, aggressive recruitment of women, racial minorities and gays and lesbians to overcome the legacy of discrimination and to help facilitate an essential change in the culture of the Police Department.

Third, the City Council must begin to consider reforms that will require amendments to the City Charter. The negotiations over the consent decree did not consider any issues that would need charter changes. The Justice Department deemed these to be outside the scope of what permissibly can be done in a consent decree. Yet, many reforms are needed that can be accomplished only through charter changes. For example, the charter should be amended to establish the Police Commission as a full-time, paid panel. Under the charter, the commission is responsible for managing every aspect of the LAPD, except for police discipline, which is the responsibility of the police chief. A part-time, unpaid commission cannot realistically manage a department as large and as complex as the LAPD.

Also, there is a need to amend the charter to increase the independence of the inspector general by providing protection from firing and a greater ability to investigate any matter.

Fourth, there must be an examination of all the components of the criminal justice system in Los Angeles: prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. When innocent people are convicted, as they were in the Rampart scandal, all participants in the criminal justice system must share the blame. This scrutiny is beyond the scope of the consent decree and must include the county and the city, the district attorney's office, the city attorney's office, the courts and the public defender.

The consent decree must not be the occasion for the city to declare victory over problems in the LAPD. Reforming the LAPD must be seen not as an event, but a process that will take enormous efforts and many years to accomplish.

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