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Good Start for LAPD's Investigation

June 30, 2004|Merrick Bobb | Merrick Bobb, a special counsel who monitors the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department for the Board of Supervisors, was a deputy general counsel for the Christopher Commission and was special counsel for the Los Angeles Police Commission.

The June 23 videotaped LAPD pursuit and flashlight beating of Stanley Miller looks to some like a replay of the Rodney King case. It could be -- if it turns out that it was a willful (albeit apparently less injurious) use of excessive force by the Los Angeles Police Department against an African American man.

But in some crucial respects, the Miller case already looks entirely different. Early indications are that the key recommendations and the provisions of the Christopher Commission and the federal consent decree, both of which emerged from the King case, are being followed.

Where the investigation will lead is not yet clear. The decisions about whether to prosecute one or more of the officers involved on criminal charges and whether they will be brought up on administrative charges are still months away.

But the Police Department, which is responsible for delivering a fair, complete and competent investigation, appears to be making the right moves at the beginning.

* In previous cases, administrative investigations to determine if an LAPD officer should be disciplined or fired took a back seat to a criminal investigation. Too often, these inquiries went nowhere once the district attorney declined to prosecute. But, in fact, the two tracks needed to be separate -- an officer may need to be fired or disciplined even if he isn't charged criminally. Now, the administrative and criminal investigations are on simultaneous parallel tracks. New rules minimize the risk that the administrative investigation will contaminate the criminal one and maximize the potential for discipline if warranted. We should see far fewer cases in which discipline should have been imposed but was not because the administrative investigation concluded after the statute of limitations expired or the interview of the officer was badly executed.

* In the past, the officers involved were often permitted to confer among themselves before they were interviewed by Internal Affairs (now called the Professional Standards Bureau), leading, at times, to massaged or concocted stories. Now, because of Christopher Commission recommendations and a consent decree provision, at least in the Miller investigation, the officers were separated and kept out of each others' presence until after they were interviewed by the Professional Standards Bureau. It also appears that the officers' rights to consult union representatives and lawyers were not compromised.

* Before, the LAPD's search for and interviews of civilian eyewitnesses were criticized for being, at times, truncated and haphazard. Here, police sources say there have been at least four neighborhood canvasses to locate witnesses, including a joint neighborhood canvass with LAPD and FBI investigators.

* The LAPD, in the past, on several occasions stiff-armed attempts by the Police Commission's inspector general -- responsible for civilian oversight of the department -- to participate meaningfully in an ongoing investigation. In contrast, the current inspector general, Andre Birotte, was fully briefed and on the scene within hours of the incident. The LAPD's top leadership has encouraged the inspector general to fully participate and attend all briefings and meetings on the Miller investigation.

No one can guarantee at this stage that the LAPD's investigation of the Miller incident will be fair and thorough, but preliminary indications are promising. The department has implemented reforms that appear to hew closely to the letter of the consent decree and the spirit of the Christopher Commission. Meeting those standards alone represents a different outcome from the Rodney King case and is a key test for the new LAPD.

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