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Commentary

Parks or No Parks, LAPD Needs Reform

April 09, 2002|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.

The divisive debate over whether Chief Bernard Parks should be reappointed has focused too much on personality and race and not nearly enough on what remains to be done to reform the Los Angeles Police Department. No matter who is the chief, many further reforms of the LAPD are essential. As the Police Commission deliberates Parks' fate, a key question must be whether he is the right person to bring about these changes.

Although the consent decree between the U.S. Justice Department and the city contains many essential reforms, it is a compromise document. Some needed improvements were not included because of strong opposition from the city's negotiators.

Among the crucial reforms needed is protection for "whistle-blowers." Officers must be able to report wrongdoing by others in the LAPD anonymously and without fear of being disciplined for not having previously reported the misconduct. The Christopher Commission report, a decade ago, said that the "code of silence" within the LAPD was the single largest obstacle to an effective disciplinary system.

Unfortunately, the code of silence remains deeply entrenched in the LAPD. The Police Department's own Board of Inquiry acknowledged that the code of silence kept the Rampart Division scandal from being exposed until Officer Rafael Perez was caught stealing cocaine from the police evidence room and made a deal to protect himself.

I have had officers describe to me very serious misconduct in their divisions and ask me who they can tell and get a promise of anonymity and immunity from discipline for not having come forward sooner.

The answer is no one; nobody has the authority to grant such anonymity or immunity.

Officers also have told me that if it were known that they had revealed wrongdoing, they would fear their backs would be unprotected the next time they were in trouble on the street. They say that they are afraid that they would lose their badges for not reporting the misconduct earlier. So it's clear that whistle-blower protection is imperative to breaking the code of silence.

Second, there must be reform of the Internal Affairs Division, which is responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct by officers. Internal Affairs obviously is crucial to uncovering and ultimately disciplining misconduct. Unfortunately, there has been no examination and no reforms despite instances in which Internal Affairs failed to adequately investigate misconduct in the Rampart Division.

Part of the problem is that there is high turnover in Internal Affairs; officers on the way up in the department spend time in Internal Affairs but want to leave quickly and tread lightly on those who will again be their colleagues. The need to create civilian oversight of Internal Affairs is obvious.

Third, there is a need to strengthen the independence and role of the inspector general. Katherine Mader and Jeffrey Eglash, the two inspectors general since the Christopher Commission created the post, have been frustrated by a lack of cooperation from police officials, including being denied access to information.

These reforms are essential, whether or not Parks is reappointed. As the Police Commission deliberates over Parks' future, it must ask whether Parks is the right person to implement these changes.

Parks, for example, has strongly opposed granting anonymity or immunity to officers reporting misconduct. Also, Parks, a former head of Internal Affairs, never has acknowledged a need for reforms of that division. And Parks has continually refused to cooperate with the inspector general.

For decades, the pattern has been the same. A scandal is exposed in the LAPD; reforms are proposed, some are adopted and others not. The city goes on until the next scandal and the pattern repeats itself.

Another major scandal in the Los Angeles Police Department is inevitable unless there are further reforms. Above all, the Police Commission must act to further reform the LAPD, and it must decide who is the right chief to make this happen.

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