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Police chief, mayor urge openness

The officials want state law changed to open discipline hearings again after a panel in secret cleared an officer in the Devin Brown slaying.

January 12, 2007|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

With the Los Angeles Police Department suddenly confronted with intense criticism for its policies of secrecy, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton on Thursday called for changing state law to ensure that police disciplinary board meetings and some records are reopened to the public.

A day after community activists and city officials expressed outrage because the LAPD held a secret board of rights hearing to clear the officer who fatally shot 13-year-old Devin Brown, Bratton likened the closure of the process to a "star chamber."

"I am in support of change. I am very frustrated by [the current process]," Bratton said early Thursday. "The public has no access to it. The media has no access to it. That's crazy, absolutely crazy. We have nothing to hide in the Los Angeles Police Department."

Hours later, Villaraigosa issued a concurring statement .

"The mayor would enthusiastically support legislation or other measures to open the board of rights process to the public," the statement said. "Transparency ... would benefit both the public and the officers facing disciplinary action."

The proposal to reopen hearings, however, drew a strong rebuke from the union representing LAPD officers, and leaders vowed to vigorously fight it in Sacramento.

The endorsement of openness from the mayor and chief -- after months of closed-door disciplinary hearings -- reflected the swift, and sometimes racially divisive, public outcry that has followed the Brown case. Angry residents and city leaders have condemned the board's ruling, and placed Bratton in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the LAPD without being able to discuss the facts behind the decision.

That has crystallized for many observers the difficulties in privately administering discipline, especially given the deeply ingrained suspicion about the LAPD in some minority communities.

On Wednesday, The Times revealed that an LAPD board had secretly cleared Officer Steven Garcia in the Brown case after the civilian Police Commission had declared the shooting to be in violation of policy.

Although disciplinary hearings had historically been open in Los Angeles, the LAPD changed its policy late last year in response to a California Supreme Court ruling that restricted access to law enforcement personnel records in a San Diego case.

A few months before, the Police Commission also changed a decades-old policy and began removing from public reports the names of officers involved in shootings. At that time, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) told commissioners that if they were concerned about potential court restrictions she would sponsor legislation to ensure that officers' names not be struck from public police records.

Bratton said he plans to meet with Romero today and offer his support for a change in state law, although he predicted that it would be an "uphill battle" because of opposition from police union leaders.

Indeed, the head of the Los Angeles Police Protective League defended the closed board of rights hearings.

"Although these are confidential meetings that are closed to reporters, the public is absolutely represented, both by civilian board of rights members, and by the inspector general," union President Bob Baker said. "We respectfully disagree with the chief that dragging these cases through the media will be helpful to the officers involved."

Romero said Thursday that changing state law would be challenging, but that support from Bratton and Villaraigosa would help.

"This is powerful and will help move this issue forward," Romero said.

The Supreme Court decision in Copley Press Inc. vs. Superior Court of San Diego is based in part on the Police Officers Bill of Rights, a state law that could be amended to loosen restrictions on records. At the same time, an amendment to the Los Angeles City Charter could expand the role of the Police Commission in disciplining officers.

Bratton said the LAPD has a thorough and fair disciplinary process.

"However, oftentimes it leads to great frustration, and particularly now with the craziness of us not being able to talk about, with any specificity, what went on, we effectively have a star chamber here in Los Angeles," Bratton said.

The chief said the current restrictions on public access represent a move "backwards" in transparency from 1999, when investigations into the police shooting of Margaret Mitchell -- a homeless woman said to have threatened an officer with a screwdriver -- were open to greater public scrutiny.

The chief defended the LAPD investigation into the Feb. 6, 2005, shooting of Brown by Officer Steven Garcia. After a brief chase, Garcia fired 10 shots at Brown -- hitting him seven times -- as the youth was backing a stolen car in the officer's direction.

Ann Reiss Lane, a former police commissioner who was the lone civilian on the Garcia board of rights panel, said Thursday that she also supported reopening disciplinary proceedings.

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