An odd thing happened during Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks' overhaul of the LAPD.
Phones began ringing at the offices of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
The organization typically fields complaints about LAPD officers. But now, cold calls were coming in from LAPD officers--charging that their own civil rights were being violated as a result of new discipline policies.
For good or ill, something had definitely changed in Los Angeles. The Police Department legendary for resisting change was being rattled to its bones by its new ramrod-straight chief.
Whether that change has resulted in improvement is a matter of fierce debate.
The LAPD's rank and file officers keenly feel the effects of the new system. Their union is waging an all-out campaign to unseat Parks, who announced Thursday that he will request a second five-year term. Some civilian critics, meanwhile, question whether scores of personnel investigations concerning small acts of misconduct are the most effective means of dealing with more serious problems, such as those revealed in the Rampart Division corruption investigation.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Monday February 4, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Clarification--In a story in Sunday's Times about disciplinary reform under Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, Los Angeles County Public Defender Michael Judge was quoted as saying Parks might be engaged in "malicious obedience," carrying out reforms in such a way as to ensure their demise. Judge said the quote mischaracterized his views. He was referring to Parks' subordinates, not to the chief.
But supporters say the LAPD is doing something it never did well before: listening to the powerless.
To understand why discipline is playing such a central role in Parks' future, it is necessary to understand only one aspect of his complicated and controversial system: its magnitude.
Put simply, many, many more LAPD officers are subject to disciplinary proceedings these days than before. Parks himself calls it "a profound change," one that alters "about 50 years of history."
Imagine a workplace in which many if not most employees are facing the possibility of discipline at any given time, where nearly everyone knows of someone who has been punished, and where bosses devote almost as much time to discipline as to supervision. That is the LAPD under Parks.
There are nearly 6,000 complaint investigations initiated yearly against the LAPD's 9,000-officer force--two for every three officers. The number of penalties being meted out each year totals on average almost one per every three officers. In any given LAPD roll call today, there is likely to be someone in the room who is entangled in some way with the disciplinary system.
Most complaints against officers involve allegations of minor misconduct, and a majority result in penalties no more severe than admonition. Discourtesy, for example, is the No. 1 public complaint against LAPD officers. The system also processes scores of internal neglect-of-duty complaints--leaving a shift early, for example, or getting into a preventable car accident.
Union leaders complain that the psychological toll of the disciplinary system on ordinary officers has resulted in a crushingly negative employment atmosphere. Supervisors fret that a glum mood stifles innovation and discourages proactive policing.
Moreover, Parks' emphasis on off-duty offenses such as domestic violence, and on lying, has further increased the sense that people are being scrutinized in highly personal ways. Officers, laments Bob Baker, vice president of the Police Protective League union, "are just so beat up."
The system requires a gigantic, multimillion-dollar bureaucratic machine to operate. This siphons a substantial amount of supervisors' time and diverts resources from other functions.
Besides 255 positions budgeted to Internal Affairs, LAPD line supervisors say they have been spending between a quarter and half of their time exclusively on discipline investigations in recent years.
Even so, the department was unable to keep up with the workload until very recently. Before the policy was changed last year, officers were not allowed to transfer or be promoted with complaint cases pending. Large numbers, many of whom had done nothing wrong, were thus caught in career limbo.
At the same time, some LAPD commanders have questioned whether all this time and effort wouldn't be better spent overseeing officers more closely, thus averting misconduct that leads to complaints.
There are also worries about the system's potential for misuse. A persistent concern is that criminals have learned to strike back at arresting officers by filing misconduct complaints. Internal Affairs officers tell of allegations involving ex-spouses or lovers of officers that seem to have more to do with heartbreak, vengeance or custody disputes than misconduct.
Other allegations turn out to be merely frivolous--a citizen complaining that an officer failed to remove his sunglasses, for example--but still cost money and time to investigate.
The blizzard of complaints may play into the hands of defense attorneys, who have been given more leeway to review officers' disciplinary histories. Such motions have exploded, from 449 requests involving the LAPD in 1995 to 2,270 last year, creating a huge workload for city bureaucracies and exposing many more officers' personnel files to public view.