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Can the LAPD Reform Itself?

The City Council has agreed to a consent decree, and Parks says he'll implement reforms. But the department's paramilitary culture stands in the way.

September 24, 2000|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick is the author of "To Protect and to Serve: LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams."

Mayor Richard Riordan and the police chief he hired, Bernard C. Parks, have finally accepted the inevitable and agreed to reforms that aim to rid the Los Angeles Police Department of corruption and lawlessness. To accomplish that, the City Council last week voted, 10-2, to enter into a consent degree with the U.S. Justice Department that spells out the changes the LAPD will have to make. Big questions remain, however. Will the consent decree, for example, be strong enough to overthrow the department's paramilitary culture--the source of so many of its problems? Will the council add language to encourage community policing? Perhaps the biggest question of all is the resolve of Parks and his department to implement reform. After bitterly opposing any deal with the Justice Department, he declared last week that he will "diligently implement" the reforms called for in the consent decree. He even claimed that "roughly 60%" of them are already being put into practice.

But there is plenty of room for skepticism, beginning with Parks' past performance and attitude toward reforms mandated from "outside." His treatment of the department's first two inspector generals, his record of implementing key Christopher Commission reforms, the self-described "mediocrity" of the department's middle management and a recent public exchange between Parks, the current inspector general and the president of the Police Commission all suggest that reform will not come easily.

Among the Christopher Commission reforms the chief failed to implement, for example, were two that were intended to provide warnings of trouble. The first was the development of a computerized system to track use of force, complaints,performance evaluations, disciplinary actions and other data on officers. Such a system would have enabled the civilian inspector general, who oversees the LAPD for the Police Commission, to assess the department's efforts to deal with problem officers. It would also have cracked the monopoly on "inside" information the chief's office has closely guarded for decades.

One consequence of the lack of a computer tracking system was highly embarrassing to the department. Katherine Mader, the first inspector general, found that LAPD Internal Affairs was investigating only 10% of use-of-force complaints, while the rest were left to its divisions, where they were easier to cover up.

The second unimplemented Christopher reform also involved the inspector general's office. As the commission's representative, the inspector general was supposed to have complete access to all records and information she needed to carry out investigations. But when Mader tried to do just that, she found Parks to be an insurmountable stumbling block. She eventually was forced to resign when the Police Commission refused to back her demands for unrestricted access.

Evidence that the chief is still the zealous gatekeeper surfaced at a recent conference on the Rampart scandal at Loyola Law School. Among those on one panel were Parks, Jeffrey C. Eglash, the current inspector general, and Gerald L. Chaleff, president of the Police Commission. Their exchange indicated how difficult the job might be for the independent monitor of the consent decree.

"Time and again," said Eglash, "we'll get a shooting report or a complaint of misconduct, and we'll want to go to the source, whether it's an Internal Affairs file or a report of an officer-involved shooting that's been investigated by Robbery-Homicide Division. We want to take a look . . . so we can perform our responsibilities, advise the commission and . . . see if there are problems. And the next thing I know, a reason will be given why we cannot look at a file. . . . We'll be told that an investigation is still ongoing and that we can only look at something when it's done. . . .

"I know if I were to go to the Anti-Terrorist Division or the Organized Crime and Vice Division and ask to look at informant files--certainly a reasonable inquiry in light of some of the revelations of the Rampart scandal--I would be told not only 'no,' but 'heck no, you're crazy.' And I have a very strong belief that if Chaleff were to do the same thing, he would be met with similar delays."

During the same panel discussion, Parks complained that he had been waiting "for three years for the [Police] Commission to give us guidelines as to the work performance and duties of the inspector general, which has not come about. . . . " To which Chaleff replied: "In January of 1998, we issued a resolution regarding the inspector general, [saying] that the [inspector general] had complete access to all information and what the rules relating to confidentiality were. They are specifically stated out. I don't think there was any need to go further."

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