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Secrecy again a major issue for the LAPD

Police Department board's private ruling clearing an officer in the shooting of a 13-year-old alienates a broad swath of the public.

January 15, 2007|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton likes to stress the importance of "transparency" in conducting police work. Such transparency, he argues, reassures the public that police are performing honestly and professionally.

But last week, Bratton was thrust into what amounts to a case study on the perils of government secrecy -- and into the uncomfortable position of having to defend himself against a cascade of criticism that his department was talking one game and playing another.

Controversy has spread over a decision by an LAPD Board of Rights to clear Officer Steven Garcia, whose shooting of a 13-year-old boy was held to be out of policy by the city's Police Commission. Critics of the ruling -- or at least of the process that produced it -- include the American Civil Liberties Union and members of the Los Angeles City Council, among others. They joined in deploring the decision and found themselves in unlikely allegiance; rare is the issue that unites former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, now a councilman, and the ACLU.

The result was an unusual public challenge to Bratton's leadership and one that raised -- as Los Angeles history has a way of doing again and again -- the question of whether a decision reached in secret can satisfy the public, particularly when the question under debate is an allegation of police abuse.

"This," Merrick Bobb, a longtime police accountability expert, said of the secrecy that now surrounds LAPD disciplinary hearings, "is an intolerable result."

Bobb blamed the courts; others targeted Bratton. But few were happy.

"We have another whitewash," South Los Angeles activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson declared on Patt Morrison's show on KPCC-FM (89.3).

"It really undermines the accountability of the Police Department," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke University law professor who helped write the Los Angeles City Charter and who has supported Bratton. "There is no way for the public to have confidence in this decision."

By Thursday, the pressure on Bratton had grown sufficiently intense that he joined with those calling for an overhaul of the rules.

"I am in support of change," Bratton told reporters 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."

Within hours, he was joined by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who released a statement echoing his chief's call for new state law and reiterating his commitment to holding open hearings on discipline.

Bobb and others argue that Bratton is not to blame for the current predicament. A California Supreme Court ruling last August held that police personnel records were not public documents.

Based on that ruling, the city attorney's office in Los Angeles advised the Police Department to close its boards of rights, which have been open to the public for decades and have acted as a window into a department whose disciplinary system has all too often been the center of controversy.

In 1991, when the city was still reeling from the videotape of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney G. King on a darkened curb in Lake View Terrace, the Christopher Commission examined the department's disciplinary system and found it sorely lacking. There were, the commissioners concurred, "substantial problems at every stage of the discipline process."

"Minor tinkering or adjustment will not solve these problems," the commission added. "A major system overhaul is required."

The commission debated scrapping the LAPD's system of disciplinary boards, three-member panels convened to hear accusations of serious misconduct by officers. Some areas of the country use civilian review boards, which remove discipline from police departments altogether, and there was significant pressure on the Christopher Commission to follow that course, given the LAPD's failure to police itself.

Instead, the commission elected to keep boards, but to reconstitute them: Prior to the Christopher Commission, boards of rights were made up of three command officers; today, they are composed of two senior officers and a civilian.

But boards throughout that period were conducted with the public present, and their findings were also a matter of public record, so their process was transparent and the members were accountable. Not so anymore. Instead, the current system -- and its result in the controversial ruling this week -- "gives the impression that the Board of Rights is just protecting the officer," Chemerinsky said.

If the current episode illustrates some of the social dangers of government secrecy, it also highlights the futility of that course.

Recent LAPD history is littered with examples of controversies that the department or those around it hoped to keep quiet, without success:

* In 1991, the Christopher Commission omitted from its formal report the names of 44 "problem officers" whose patterns of complaints raised questions about their work. The names leaked anyway.

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