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Commentary

Civilians Do Better at Judging Cop Misconduct

February 05, 2001|MITZI GRASSO | Mitzi Grasso is president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League

It's not often that law enforcement professionals in California look to the East for inspiration. We like to think of ourselves as on the leading edge of our profession, and usually we are. But the New York Police Department has a good idea that we should adopt: a civilian complaint review board to handle departmental investigations into allegations of police misconduct. This is particularly important now both because of the Rampart scandal and because the rank-and-file membership of the Los Angeles Police Department finds the existing review system overwhelmingly unfair.

Traditionally, police organizations like the Los Angeles Police Protective League have opposed civilian review boards, believing they would turn disciplinary proceedings into legal lynchings by cop-hating outsiders. But that has not turned out to be the case where they have been tried. Indeed, almost half the largest 200 cities in the U.S. have some kind of civilian board, and the results have been good. There are some good reasons to try one here in Los Angeles:

* The public is inherently suspicious when cops investigate cops. The apparent conflict of interest is obvious. Whenever a police officer is cleared of wrongdoing by another police officer, there is the potential for the public, and particularly the complainant, to wonder whether justice was really done. Whether the issue is unnecessary or excessive force, abuse of authority or even simple discourtesy, members of the public may have different standards for judging these things than police officers.

* Here in Los Angeles, we must rebuild the confidence of the people in the LAPD. The Rampart Division scandal has been a devastating blow to our department in many ways, but more than anything it shook public confidence in police. Bringing civilians into the complaint review process is only one of many steps we can and must take to rebuild that confidence.

* Direct civilian involvement in the complaint process will produce fairer decisions for our officers. With the process now in place, internal politics often trumps justice. The police command staff sitting on these panels apparently believes that excessively rigid discipline is far less of a career risk than carefully balanced decision-making. Every LAPD officer knows that his or her chances today depend at least as much on the board members' concerns about promotion as on the facts. Every cop also knows there is a double standard--one for working street officers and another for the senior levels of command.

In announcing creation of a civilian review board in New York City, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, known as one of the nation's harshest critics of civilian oversight of police, said, "We think it will make them more efficient, more effective--there will be less of a tendency to charge [officers with misconduct] when maybe there is not enough proof." Those of us here in Los Angeles who represent the men and women of the LAPD agree.

We believe bringing civilians into the process has other benefits too. For example, hundreds of citizens serve our city as police officers on a part-time basis while pursuing civilian careers ranging from movie acting to business management. The perspective they bring to the department is invaluable. They are in our patrol cars, behind our station desks, in our locker rooms and at our briefing sessions every day, helping us to see the police world from a civilian perspective and to connect with people who understand police work but who live more normal lives.

In a similar way, a civilian review board will bring common sense and civilian judgment to the specialized world of policing. Police officers are a pretty tight bunch. We tend to talk and think alike a lot of the time. After years on this kind of intense job, it is possible to lose the detachment needed to evaluate fairly the complaints about police misconduct. The experience of police departments in other cities is that civilian review boards can bring the balanced and nuanced understanding of disciplinary issues that police-only boards cannot.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League wants a firm and fair disciplinary system. Indeed, it is only with such a system in place that we can restore the pride we once felt as members of what we still believe to be one of the finest and most professional police organizations in the world. We are committed to rebuilding a culture of trust, honesty and integrity. A civilian complaint review board along the lines of what New York City is doing would be an important first step in that direction.

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