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Free the Inspector General

May 27, 2003

Los Angeles voters called for strong and independent oversight of the Police Department when they voted to create the position of inspector general. Seven years and three inspectors general later, Police Commission President Rick Caruso seems to have forgotten that message. The office, he told The Times, exists to be "the eyes and ears of the commission." No, it exists to be the eyes and ears of the public.

Caruso last week brushed off a call by City Council members Cindy Miscikowski and Jack Weiss to strengthen the office, which in its brief history has not had the authority to thoroughly investigate misconduct complaints. The two previous inspectors general left after butting heads with Bernard C. Parks, then the police chief and now a city councilman. (The commission recently named Andre Birotte Jr., a former federal prosecutor and assistant inspector general, to the post.)

Caruso claims that such infighting is history. But even if Police Chief William J. Bratton lives up to his promise of cooperation, he -- and Caruso -- will not be around forever. Bratton's vow to be open makes this an ideal time to give the watchdog clout that would survive future changes. Miscikowski and Weiss have asked the council to put together a group of police reform experts, police officers, commissioners and representatives of the mayor, the city attorney and the council to strengthen the office. Increasing the power of the inspector general might require a city ordinance or a charter change.

A Times story last week underscored the need for oversight. It disclosed that in recent years internal LAPD investigations of 96 officers were submitted to prosecutors after the legal time limit had expired. Miscikowski and Weiss want to give Birotte leeway to participate in misconduct investigations from the outset rather than waiting until the LAPD is finished, as is the case now. They also would have the watchdog report periodically to the full City Council. This has particularly ticked off the turf-conscious Caruso, never mind that the council represents the very voters who created the office.

Commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor, would continue to hire and oversee (and fire) inspectors general. But it's fair to ask just where they have been -- not just the current commissioners but their predecessors -- in the years that an insular and secretive LAPD rebuffed civilian oversight, including the commission's. History argues that more eyes are needed. Voters agreed.

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