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These amateurs could get cops killed

November 13, 2005|Jack Dunphy | Jack Dunphy is the pseudonym of a Los Angeles police officer who writes a column for National Review Online.

THE FIVE members of the Los Angeles Police Commission bring a variety of experience to their role as overseers of the LAPD. Three commissioners are practicing attorneys, one is a banker, and the fifth is a retired civil rights activist. All are accomplished in their fields and have been recognized with awards from professional and community-based organizations. And, in keeping with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's commitment to diversity, they represent a cross section of the city's ethnicities and sexual orientations. Clearly, the mayor selected the panel with as much of an eye on politics as on policymaking.

Sadly, what is not to be found on the panel is any depth of knowledge in police tactics. It may have been this lack of experience that led to the commission's finding that a September 2004 police shooting was "out of policy" and that the involved officer should face discipline. In handing down the decision, the commission overruled Chief William Bratton, who had concluded that the officer did not violate LAPD policy when he shot and wounded a burglary suspect during a traffic stop in Van Nuys.

The LAPD's Special Investigation Section had Roger Mills under surveillance at the time and had linked him to an earlier robbery in which guns were taken, according to a Times story. Detective Jim Harris told LAPD investigators that when he and other SIS members surrounded Mills' car, Mills refused to keep his hands in the air and reached toward his waist. Harris fired at Mills with a shotgun, wounding him, but Mills was found to be unarmed. Mills recovered, and he was convicted of burglary and sentenced to four years in prison.

It is rare for the police commission to overrule the chief's findings on officer-involved shootings (particularly SIS shootings, which, according to a Times study, the commission has overruled only two times since 1985, and it reversed itself in one of those), leading some police critics to claim that the panel has been little more than Bratton's (and his predecessors') civilian rubber stamp.

Cops on the street are now left to wonder: Does the ruling on the Mills shooting represent a legitimate difference of opinion between Bratton and his civilian bosses, or was the commission's decision influenced by politics?

"These commissioners are showing early they have the courage and conviction to stand up to Chief Bratton when necessary," said activist Najee Ali. "This is a quite stunning decision. For them to break ranks is a strong sign of their independence and a good sign for civilian oversight."

Ali is most often identified in the media as the head of Project Islamic Hope, but he is also a former gang member and has been convicted of hit and run, perjury and armed robbery. Many cops find it difficult to share his enthusiasm for the commission's newfound independence.

Even if one assumes the purest of motives for the commission's ruling, what expertise can its members claim to justify it? Among the five, only Alan Skobin has received any formal police training. Skobin, vice president and general counsel of Galpin Motors, has been a reserve deputy for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department for more than 20 years, giving him a perspective on the life-and-death decisions police officers are forced to make in a fraction of a second. But his fellow commissioners have lived their professional lives in the comfort and safety of paneled offices. And one of them, Commission President John Mack, was for many years one of the LAPD's most vocal critics while serving as head of the Los Angeles chapter of the Urban League. I remain skeptical of his claim of objectivity in his new post.

Will police officers now pause to weigh the potential political consequences before taking action to save their own lives? Will an atmosphere of second-guessing cause them to hesitate? Let's hope not, because in police work, he who hesitates is not only lost, he is dead.

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