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Supervisors, Sheriff Baca urge reopening disciplinary hearings

February 08, 2007|Matt Lait | Times Staff Writer

In response to growing secrecy surrounding police misconduct, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday urged the Civil Service Commission to stop excluding the sheriff's civilian watchdog from deputy disciplinary hearings.

The commission in November barred attorneys from the Office of Independent Review -- and all other members of the public -- from attending the previously open hearings, citing a state Supreme Court ruling last summer that restricted access to law enforcement personnel records.

Michael Gennaco, the head of the Office of Independent Review for the Sheriff's Department, protested the commission's decision, saying it undermined his ability to keep tabs on discipline and deprived the public of crucial information about police accountability.

In a letter to the commission Wednesday, the county's top lawyer said supervisors and Sheriff Lee Baca supported Gennaco's inclusion in the process.

County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. said the California Supreme Court's ruling in Copley Press Inc. vs. Superior Court of San Diego County does not require the closure of commission hearings. He argued that attorneys from Gennaco's office already had "full and complete access" to Sheriff's Department personnel records and were professionally bound to keep such information confidential.

"There is, I respectfully submit, no basis for the exclusion of any attorneys for the county, whose duties and responsibilities involve them in the center of these proceedings," Fortner wrote.

In a separate letter to the commission last month, Baca also requested that Gennaco and his staff be allowed to sit in on the hearings. Gennaco's office "plays an essential role in ensuring that those investigations are thorough and fair and that the investigative outcomes are principled," Baca wrote.

An attorney for the deputies' union has objected to the civilian watchdog's presence at the hearings, saying such independent observers have no standing in the proceedings.

The ruling in the Copley case has had ramifications throughout law enforcement. For example, the Los Angeles Police Department recently closed its disciplinary hearings to the public. Last month, after the disciplinary panel secretly cleared an officer of misconduct in the controversial shooting of a 13-year-old boy, the Police Commission, Chief William J. Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for new legislation that would reopen hearings. State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) has agreed to sponsor such legislation.

Gennaco's conflict with the Civil Service Commission arose last year when an attorney from his office tried to attend the disciplinary hearing of Deputy Frank Rothe, who received a 25-day suspension for participating in an off-duty bar fight in which he was accused of striking another patron, lying to investigators and trying to interfere with a witness. Rothe appealed. After the recent Supreme Court ruling, the commission sealed all documents in connection with appeals by sheriff's deputies. Rothe's attorney also successfully argued that Gennaco and his staff should be excluded from the hearings.

Civil service commissioners are responsible for hearing the appeals of deputies who believe they were improperly disciplined by the department. The commission hired an attorney last year to advise it on the matter and was told that Gennaco's office should be included in the closed-door meetings only if it served an "official" or "essential" role in the process.

Z. Greg Kahwajian, president of the Civil Service Commission, said the panel would review the requests from the Board of Supervisors and the sheriff and revisit the matter at its meeting next week. Kahwajian, however, seemed perturbed that neither the sheriff, county counsel nor the board had raised their concerns when the commission debated the issue in November. He said those parties had ample time to weigh in back then, but remained silent.

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