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Scaling Rampart again

July 13, 2006

WHEN IT MEETS THIS AFTERNOON to take up the most recent report on the Rampart police scandal, the Los Angeles Police Commission will hear very little it hasn't heard, or probably guessed at, before. Los Angeles is under-policed. The Los Angeles Police Department relies largely on "warrior policing," leading to friction with communities that sometimes see officers as soldiers in an occupying army. There have been remarkable improvements since a consent decree imposed federal oversight and since William J. Bratton became chief in 2002.

That last point should not be swept aside. The Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel noted that the Rampart Division, where the now-defunct CRASH unit gave birth to a corruption scandal, is a model of enlightened policing. The LAPD is more transparent, in part because of reforms that predate the consent decree, such as adding an inspector general, in part because Bratton is open to criticism, and in part because of the federal mandates. It also is worth noting that the face of today's LAPD is different from a decade ago, with officers who more closely represent the ethnic makeup of the communities they patrol.

But along with the department's improvements are enduring problems. The panel, headed by attorney and civil rights activist Connie Rice, sees the LAPD as likely to revert to its old model and its old problems without a huge infusion of resources that the city, so far, has been unwilling to provide. Even today, the report claims, insufficient supervision leaves most LAPD divisions open to Rampart-style corruption. Many officers in high-crime divisions still police their beats by intimidation.

The need for more resources is a perennial diagnosis. Countless times, elected officials say they will find the money for more officers, but the LAPD stays the same size even as the city's population grows; the money has a habit of going somewhere else, or simply never materializing. Homeowners are soon to pay higher trash collection fees in return for a promised 1,000 new officers, but Bratton -- and Rice's panel -- are calling for three times that number to bring the department to an acceptable level.

The most telling part of the report, and the most stunning indictment of the city's failures in leadership, may well be in the few sentences of the introduction that describe the review panel's timeline. The Police Commission agreed to an independent probe in July 2003, five months after Bratton requested it. It took the City Council until February 2004 to sign on. It then took the commission until August 2004 to issue rules and allow the panel to begin its work. The report offers the dates without commentary, but between the lines is a gasp of frustration: More than a year passed from the time the panel was appointed and the time City Hall let it actually do anything.

So the Police Commission has today, seven years after the Rampart scandal surfaced -- and a few years after an internal LAPD report, a commission report, a union report, a legal-community report, a district attorney's report and a grand jury report that remains unseen and is perpetually sealed by court order -- a new report, calling for solutions the city knows it needs but is unable, or unwilling, to provide. Plus this unsurprising conclusion: We will never really know exactly what happened in Rampart.

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