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State senator vows to reopen police hearings

Gloria Romero says she will introduce legislation to do away with secret disciplinary hearings, currently a source of controversy.

January 16, 2007|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

An effort to reopen public access to police disciplinary hearings and records in Los Angeles gained momentum Monday when a prominent state senator announced that she would introduce legislation aimed at restoring transparency.

Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said she would put forward a bill by the end of the month to supplant a California Supreme Court ruling last August that led officials to restrict access to police personnel records and disciplinary hearings once open to the public.

"If we fail to restore a proper balance, we fall into a state which sanctions and knowingly runs essentially a secret police," Romero said at a news conference before a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in the Crenshaw district. "We have progressed too far to settle for secrecy."

Police unions immediately declared their opposition. They said greater openness in confidential police matters would put officers in danger from criminals intent on doing harm -- although in past interviews union officials have been unable to point to examples in which open proceedings have compromised an officer's safety.

Police Protective League President Bob Baker also insisted that the public's interest is already served by three-member disciplinary Boards of Rights composed of two police officials and one civilian.

"Along with other public safety unions, we will fight any legislative efforts that would reduce or remove this right of privacy," Baker said in a statement.

The California Peace Officers' Assn. could not be reached for comment.

The fight over public access to disciplinary actions stems from the state high court's ruling in Copley Press Inc. vs. Superior Court of San Diego, which restricted public access to law enforcement personnel records.

Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo interpreted the ruling as giving officers broad privacy protections.

Police Chief William J. Bratton and Police Commission President John Mack said they support greater public openness, but were compelled to close disciplinary hearings -- which had been open to the public for decades -- because of legal advice from Delgadillo.

The issue erupted into a public controversy last week after a Board of Rights secretly cleared Officer Steven Garcia in the shooting death of 13-year-old Devin Brown in 2005.

The action came even though the officer's conduct was found to be in violation of department policy by the Police Commission. The city had also agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Brown's family.

Civil rights advocates and several members of the Los Angeles City Council criticized the Board of Right's closed-door ruling, saying greater public openness is essential to ensure trust in a Police Department that has long been held in suspicion by some minority communities.

The Police Commission is scheduled today to discuss options for bringing more transparency to disciplinary proceedings. The commission sets Police Department policy but cannot discipline officers.

Commission President Mack, a former head of the Los Angeles Urban League, said that commissioners have found themselves with "a legal chokehold around our necks ... If we are ever going to develop the kind of mutual trust and mutual respect between the Los Angeles Police Department and members of the communities of color -- Latinos, African Americans and others -- it is important that people know our actions."

Romero acknowledged that her legislation must balance officers' privacy rights against the public's right to know about its Police Department.

In her comments Monday, she invited police unions to help her craft "restorative language" that would "bring those scales of justice back into a balanced situation," adding: "If we lose the people's trust in any aspect of government, especially in policing, no one is safe."

Those sentiments were echoed Monday by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Bratton, who have called for change in wake of the Devin Brown case.

"We need open hearings," Villaraigosa said. "The people of this city have a right to know how police officer discipline is conducted, and the officers have a right to make the case to the public."

Bratton added: "We have nothing to hide in the Los Angeles Police Department when it comes to this area. Let's get it back to where it was. It's vital for all concerned."

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