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Scuffle Raises Questions

Councilmen's LAPD reserve roles are debated after they nab suspect.

July 31, 2003|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

A day after Los Angeles City Councilmen Dennis Zine and Greig Smith got into a scuffle with a suspected car thief while working as reserve police officers, several of their council colleagues questioned the practice of elected officials wearing uniforms, carrying guns and making arrests in their spare time.

Some council members said moonlighting for the Los Angeles Police Department could pose a conflict of interest, given the council's role overseeing the LAPD, and could expose the city to lawsuits.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, the former police chief, and Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski said they plan to ask the council and the city attorney to evaluate the practice.

In addition, council members confirmed Wednesday that they decided in closed session to settle a lawsuit arising out of Zine's visit last fall to the Frisky Kitty, a strip club in his district. Zine went to the Tarzana club in his LAPD uniform after constituents complained about unsavory characters hanging around the place.

In response, the club owner filed a $100-million lawsuit. Zine said he had done nothing wrong, and officials said the suit would probably be settled for about $15,000.

Smith and Zine are among more than 740 citizens who serve as reserve police officers for the LAPD and are among fewer than 200 who are qualified to carry a gun and make arrests.

Parks, who did not allow council members to serve as reserve officers when he was police chief, said the double duty constituted "a major conflict of interest." It could be difficult for commanding officers to treat council members in the reserve like any other member of the rank and file, he said.

"Anyone who says it's any other case is not being honest about it," Parks said Wednesday.

Zine, a former police officer who represents the San Fernando Valley, said he does not believe there is a conflict of interest in his police work.

"If they attempt to remove me or Mr. Smith, I will challenge it," he said. "All this does is afford me the opportunity to help the LAPD."

Smith said that he does not see a conflict of interest, but that he does believe there could be a liability issue for the city. As a result, he said, he suggested Wednesday that Police Chief William Bratton move him off patrol and into a specialized unit dealing with car theft.

Having a council member out issuing traffic tickets and making arrests "raises the possibility that people would sue for things they normally wouldn't," Smith said.

But both Zine and Smith said they believed they acted appropriately early Tuesday morning when patrolling the Valley with a newly appointed member of the Los Angeles Police Commission, Alan Skobin.

They had intended to show the commissioner police stations in the Valley, but at about midnight heard a radio call of trouble at Galpin Motors, where Skobin works.

The trio sped to the scene, and Zine and Smith were drawn into a scuffle with a man fighting with a security guard. Both council members were hit with pepper spray, and Smith suffered "redness to his forehead area," according to a police report.

Several other LAPD officers also responded to the call, and after an extended struggle, the man was arrested and charged with attempting to remove an officer's weapon. He was also taken to a hospital for treatment of scrapes.

Police Chief William Bratton said the councilmen's actions would be investigated like any other incident of an officer involved in use of force.

"This particular case illustrates what reserve officers have to do," Zine said. "We're doing this for the right reason. We're not doing this to grandstand. We're doing this because we believe in the LAPD."

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