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Mayor's Power Play Sets Back LAPD Reform

February 07, 2001|ERWIN CHEMERINSKY | Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at USC, conducted an independent review of the LAPD Board of Inquiry's report on the Rampart scandal for the Police Protective League

Mayor Richard Riordan's firing Monday of Police Commission President Gerald Chaleff is a major step backward in reforming the Los Angeles Police Department. Let there be no mistake: Chaleff was fired because he stood up to Riordan and to Police Chief Bernard C. Parks in fighting to reform the LAPD.

Under the new City Charter, the City Council has the authority to override the mayor's firing by a two-thirds vote. Chaleff should appeal his firing, and the City Council should exercise this check and balance to return him to office.

Rumors that the mayor wanted to fire Chaleff were widespread last year when Chaleff led the Police Commission in overruling Parks with regard to the shooting of Margaret Mitchell, a 4-foot, 11-inch homeless woman who was suspected by police officers of stealing a shopping cart. When the officers approached Mitchell, she brandished a screwdriver. The officers shot and killed her.

Astoundingly, Parks found that the shooting was "within policy." It was reported that the mayor and his staff aggressively lobbied police commissioners to side with the chief. Chaleff and two other commissioners disagreed and, in a 3-2 decision, overruled Parks.

Chaleff further drew the mayor's ire by pushing for a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department to reform the LAPD. Riordan and Parks staunchly opposed a consent decree until it was clear that there were sufficient votes in the City Council to provide approval even over the mayor's threatened veto. By all accounts, Chaleff played an instrumental role in negotiating the consent decree over frequent disagreements with the mayor's chief of staff, Kelly Martin.

Riordan's announced reasons for firing Chaleff are laughable. Riordan said that Chaleff was dismissed because of the low morale in the LAPD and because of delays in implementing community policing, such as the senior lead officer program. Last summer, in preparing a report on the LAPD, I spoke to dozens of officers, and it was clear to me that the largest contributor to low morale was a disciplinary system that officers perceive as arbitrary and unfair.

Under the City Charter, the police chief is entirely responsible for discipline; the Police Commission has no role. Also, it was Parks who eliminated the senior lead officer program, and it was the Police Commission, led by Chaleff, that mandated its return.

The question must be asked of Riordan: With less than five months left as mayor, why did you fire Chaleff now? Is it because a major aspect of implementing the consent decree is choosing the monitor to oversee reform, and you wanted a Police Commission president you could control during this important step in the process? I think the answer is clear.

Even more insidious, there is reason to fear that the city will try to get out of its agreement to the consent decree. For one thing, the city may figure that President Bush and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft may be less committed to it than their predecessors. And, already, three City Council members--Hal Bernson, Nate Holden and Rudy Svornich--have urged the council to back out of the agreement. Riordan may well feel that this is much more likely to occur without Chaleff as president of the Police Commission.

At times, I have criticized Chaleff for not pushing hard enough for reforms in the LAPD. For example, Chaleff opposed an independent commission to investigate the Rampart scandal and other corruption in the department. But Chaleff has been a force for positive change. His removal is a major blow to efforts to improve policing in Los Angeles.

During the City Charter reform process, voters agreed that it was essential that the City Council have the power to be a check on the mayor's removal power so as to ensure the independence of the Police Commission. That would take 10 votes. At the moment, only 13 of the council's 15 members are available for such a decision (Jackie Goldberg resigned after being elected to the state Assembly, and Council President John Ferraro is ill). That makes it harder to muster the votes, but it is important for the council to do so both to continue the reform of the LAPD and to set a precedent for the future that, when the issue is important enough, the council can find the will to overrule the mayor.

The Police Commission is not a part of the mayor's cabinet. Police commissioners are not there to do the mayor's bidding. An independent, aggressive Police Commission is essential for effective control of the LAPD.

Chaleff was fired by the mayor for being too independent and too aggressive. That's exactly why the City Council must urge Chaleff to appeal the firing and then reinstate him in his position as Police Commission president.

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