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Lawmakers kill a bill to open LAPD discipline records

Villaraigosa calls the action 'an outrage.' It faced opposition from state police unions.

June 25, 2008|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Despite lobbying efforts by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an Assembly committee Tuesday killed a bill that would have cleared the way for the Los Angeles Police Department to make officers' disciplinary hearings and records open to the public.

The bill faced stiff opposition from many of the state's powerful police unions, which argued that the measure would compromise officer safety. LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, normally a Villaraigosa ally, pointedly chose not to take a position on the bill and Tuesday expressed concerns about it.

Three Democrats on the seven-member Public Safety Committee refused to cast a vote. Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) voted for the measure, and Assemblymen Greg Aghazarian (R-Stockton), Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) and Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) opposed it.

The bill's author, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), lashed out against the members who abstained. They were Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana), the committee's chairman, and Assemblymen Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate) and Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge).

"I was really taken aback by the [bill's] death by silence," Romero said. "The fear, you could feel it -- the fear of what will happen if you look out for the public's interests when they may differ from the interests of the law enforcement lobby."

Tim Sands, president of the Police Protective League, which represents 9,300 LAPD rank-and-file officers, said he was pleased that "this bad piece of legislation was stopped." He reiterated the union's stance that the department's discipline system allows sufficient civilian oversight. The league launched a radio campaign that was highly critical of the proposed law, and Sands, in a recent interview, accused Romero of throwing a "legislative temper tantrum."

Villaraigosa, who encouraged Romero to sponsor the bill and made calls to Solorio and several other members, echoed the senator's frustration.

"It's an outrage," he said. "This was the status quo for 20 years, and the people of Los Angeles want this type of transparency."

The legislation, SB 1019, would have allowed, but not required, the LAPD to return to its long-standing policy of releasing officer's disciplinary records and allowing the news media and other members of the public to attend disciplinary hearings. Acting on the advice of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, the department sharply curtailed its disclosure policy in 2006 in light of a state Supreme Court decision.

In that case, Copley Press Inc. versus Superior Court of San Diego County, the court prohibited public disclosure of personnel records of a sheriff's deputy appealing his discipline to a civil service commission. The court majority made clear that its ruling had no bearing on the disciplinary hearings, but LAPD brass has rebuffed efforts by The Times and other news media groups to loosen its restrictions.

Last year, Romero sponsored more far-reaching legislation that would have affected local law enforcement agencies other than just the LAPD. Villaraigosa and Bratton publicly supported that initiative but then backed off, in part over concerns that the bill was too broad in defining what might be a public record. That billed was approved by the Senate but stalled in committee in the Assembly.

This time around, Bratton broke with the mayor and Romero, saying the amended bill was too narrowly focused on the LAPD. "I see no reason why the city of Los Angeles needs to be singled out on this issue," he said in a brief interview. "Our practices, in many respects, are better than many other areas of the state."

Bratton's lack of support for Romero's amended bill seemed at odds with remarks he's made supporting more transparency of LAPD discipline. In an interview earlier this year, for example, he said he would have "no problem" with releasing more discipline information if lawmakers reversed the Copley decision.

Like Bratton, Solorio said he disagreed with limiting the bill to the LAPD. He and other committee members also said they would have been more open to the idea of increased disclosures if Romero's bill had been restricted to cases in which the allegations against the officers had been sustained.

"We do not want to ruin the reputation of law enforcement officers if the accusations against them are not upheld," Solorio said. An effort by Romero to rewrite her bill to ease those concerns, he added, came too late to give him enough time to assess it.

Barring an unlikely waiver of legislative rules, Romero's bill will expire Friday -- the deadline for proposed laws to be approved by policy committees. Romero said she doubted that she and Solorio would be able to find enough common ground on the matter to co-sponsor a compromise bill in the future.

"There is really very little wiggle room on this issue," she said. "Either you believe in secrecy or you don't."

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

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