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After 12 Years, Handcuffs Stay on LAPD Reform

Blame a resistant culture and Bratton--and don't spare the City Council.

June 06, 2004|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick is the author of "Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America's Golden State" and a senior fellow at USC Annenberg's Institute for Justice and Journalism.

The circumstances could not be better for transforming the scandal-plagued Los Angeles Police Department. The Police Commission, which oversees the department, is reform-minded, and the police chief, William J. Bratton, is a premier agent of change. Yet little that goes to the heart of the problem seems to have changed, at least according to U.S. District Judge Garry Feess. There is plenty of blame to go around.

After reviewing the 11th quarterly evaluation of the LAPD's compliance with the consent decree it was forced to sign with the U.S. Justice Department, Feess angrily declared that when he saw "such problems going on when [the LAPD] know[s] people are looking, [I] wonder what could possibly go on when no one is looking."

The two issues that aroused Feess' wrath are the same ones that led to the decree: officers' unlawful, sometimes brutal, treatment of suspects and the department's refusal to hold itself accountable for such conduct or submit to civilian authority.

Consider: The department still lacks an effective computerized complaint system to track officer misconduct. The current database, called TEAMS I, is dysfunctional and has a tortured history going back more than a decade. After the 1991 beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers, Charter Amendment F was passed. It codified reforms recommended by the Christopher Commission, one of which was an officer-tracking system. Its absence, according to Merrick Bobb, the special counsel monitoring the Sheriff's Department, bore "directly on the [Rampart] scandal.... At the very least, such a system would have created questions about exactly why so many officers were involved in so many shootings, excessive force complaints and other incidents."

Inexcusably, nearly three years into the consent decree imposed after the Rampart scandal, there is still no top-flight database with easy linkage and full-text method of searching that can flag problem officers. Other than changing the LAPD's culture, there is nothing more crucial to reforming the department than such a tracking system. It was important enough for federal monitor Michael Cherkasky to have warned that unless the system were installed soon, the consent degree could be extended beyond its original five-year mandate, at a reported annual cost to the city of as much as $50 million.

The second major failure of compliance cited in Cherkasky's report centers on LAPD investigations into officer-involved shootings and use of major force. "Deficiencies" in these investigations were so serious, according to Cherkasky, that they "undermined the monitor's confidence in the department's handling of [use-of-force] investigations." This failure, the report concluded, "must be rectified with the greatest of expediency."

What is amazing about these comments is their historical echo. Twenty-four years ago, a remarkably similar assessment was made in a study, commissioned by then-Dist. Atty. John K. Van de Kamp, on how the LAPD investigated officer-involved shootings. "What we found," said one of the investigators, "was that the primary purpose of the department's investigation[s] was to protect itself from liability or embarrassment. They'd use irregular investigative procedures when interviewing civilian witnesses ... immortalizing their testimony on tape at their initial interview. But civilians ... surprised by what's happened [at a shooting], [are] often in a state of shock, so you can bet there'll be inconsistencies. But when the officers were interviewed, it was in a group with no tape. Questions were asked off the record -- and a version of events squared away. It gave them the opportunity to shoot holes in the civilians' stories and iron out inconsistencies in their own."

It was only recently, according to Cherkasky's report, that the LAPD complied with the monitor's requirement "that all involved and witness officers to an officer-involved shooting be separated immediately and remain separated until they provide a statement."

Why has the pace of reform moved so slowly? Why hasn't Bratton ensured the department's compliance? Other than the monitor's reports, why is there so little official information about the failures and successes of the reform process? What happens to that process when the federal monitor leaves? And when Bratton departs, what kind of police force will he leave behind?

No one doubts Bratton's intention to implement the provisions of the consent decree. The question is really about his focus. When he took office, Los Angeles was fast becoming the murder capital of America. There was tremendous pressure on him to make fighting crime his No. 1 priority at a time when the city would not provide the resources he needed to do the job adequately. Simultaneously, he had to deal with officer redeployment, departmental restructuring, command-staff weaknesses and placing his own people. In short, Bratton focused on creating a sense of competence and efficiency.

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