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More Disciplinary Power for Bratton Urged

Activists say the police Board of Rights often goes easy on officers in misconduct cases.

July 13, 2004|Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

A group of community leaders called Monday for new disciplinary powers for Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, saying he should have the final decision on officer misconduct, rather than a panel dominated by police officers.

"Should these boards, who are accountable to no one, be the decision-making body?" asked Earl Ofari Hutchinson of the National Alliance for Positive Action, referring to the Police Department's Board of Rights.

He said the chief and the Los Angeles Police Commission should judge, because they are accountable to the public.

Hutchinson said he and others, including the Congress of Racial Equality, would call for a city charter amendment addressing the issue outside today's Police Commission meeting. He said he was concerned about how the LAPD would handle potential discipline in the videotaped June 23 beating of car theft suspect Stanley Miller.

Hutchinson also cited the case last year of an officer who fatally shot Margaret Mitchell, a homeless woman. The Police Commission had concluded that the officer should be punished, but a panel exonerated him.

Under current rules, Bratton reports on disciplinary cases to the Police Commission, which decides whether the officer's actions comply with department policy.

Officers can appeal to the Board of Rights, made up of two command-level officers and a civilian chosen at random. Bratton can lighten, but cannot increase, discipline imposed by the board.

In recent years, the LAPD Board of Rights ignored the Police Commission at least four times, allowing officers to escape punishment for shootings that the department's civilian bosses had found to be improper.

The activists said the Board of Rights is traditionally too lenient. But changing the system would require a change to the city charter, and putting a charter change on the ballot requires a vote of the City Council or a petition signed by 196,000 voters.

The activists' move comes almost a year after Bratton himself suggested changes to the system after the Mitchell case.

In 2001, Mayor James K. Hahn proposed abolishing the Board of Rights and replacing it with a civilian review system similar to those used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the California Highway Patrol. But the change never came about.

Much of the debate stemmed from a Board of Rights decision last year that cleared LAPD Officer Edward Larrigan in the May 21, 1999, fatal shooting of Mitchell, the mentally ill homeless woman.

Larrigan and his partner initially stopped Mitchell, 55, near 4th Street and La Brea Avenue to determine whether she had stolen a shopping cart she was pushing.

During a confrontation, the 5-foot-2 Mitchell pulled a 12-inch screwdriver from the cart and waved it at officers before allegedly moving toward Larrigan. The officer, who said he feared for his life, fatally shot her.

After the Police Commission ruled that the shooting violated LAPD regulations, the Board of Rights found the shooting to be justified.

After the decision, Bratton and then-Police Commission President Rick Caruso publicly called for an overhaul of the system, saying the chief should have the power to override board decisions. No changes were made at that time.

"There's been no traction on this issue," said Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, who introduced a motion last year calling for the overhaul of the LAPD disciplinary system. "Cut to its core, it's because there's been little interest in real LAPD reform at the council level."

Mary Alice Jones, director of the Congress of Racial Equality Western Region Headquarters, said she will join in the call for change.

"It is all very well to complain about police brutality," Jones said. "But if you want to make a real difference in policing, you've got to change the policy, and that's what we are trying to do here."

The Board of Rights process has not changed much since its creation in 1935. The system was first set up the dilute the control exercised by a corrupt police chief.

When the Christopher Commission examined the LAPD after the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King, it debated doing away with the boards in favor of outside civilian review panels.

Instead, it recommended replacing with a civilian one of the three police officers who then made up the boards, a suggestion that was implemented.

USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who served on the charter reform commission that examined the Board of Rights issue in the late 1990s, said giving the chief more control over the board would be a mistake in the long run, both for police and the community.

"Imagine if there was a chief that wasn't discipline-oriented," Chemerinsky said. "Then, the Board of Rights won't serve as a basis of recommending discipline where it's necessary."

Los Angeles Police Protective League President Bob Baker also urged caution.

"Obviously, we are concerned about the community, but this is about due process of officers' rights, much like the investigation that's going on right now," Baker said. "Let the facts speak for themselves."

Also calling for enhanced powers for Bratton was Najee Ali, chair of the Project of Islamic Hope -- whom Bratton called a "nitwit" on national television last month.

Bratton later apologized to Ali, who had criticized the LAPD in the Miller case.

"This board has acted like the Three Stooges in the past and the only way to change that is a charter change," said Ali, who is facing trial on charges of identity theft and hit-and-run.

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