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A clearly better LAPD

Two situations are reminders that transparency in the department benefits the public and the police.

March 27, 2008

Police accountability is a multipurpose motto, susceptible to manipulation and often varying with the eye of the beholder. Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton tends to honor it in the breach -- he proclaims the department accountable, then decries those who scrutinize its work. Critics of the LAPD demand transparency but sometimes fail to take advantage of it. Leaders of the city's police union insist that they believe in it but often work to undermine it.

Two developments in recent weeks highlight those conflicting perspectives.

The first is the creation of a Culver City couple who have pioneered the latest in Internet-based accountability. There are already websites where patients can rate their doctors and where clients can post about their lawyers. Now comes RateMyCop.com, where unlucky recipients of police attention can chime in about the professionalism shown them by the officers who wrote them tickets.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League says it has received a number of complaints from members, and the site's managers have received plenty of objections too. But opposition is fruitless and unwise. Fruitless because, like it or not, we live in a world in which the Internet offers endless opportunity for self-expression and critique. Unwise because police are consummately public officials, carrying out duties that deserve public scrutiny and comment. It has long been said that the most powerful person in the criminal justice system is an officer in the moment of encounter with a suspect. That's true, and those encounters warrant the closest attention possible. RateMyCop.com may be a crude device, but it's a worthy one.

Meantime, Los Angeles police officers have more important things to worry about. The department is wrestling with the future of its venerable SWAT unit, and some officers complain that their objections to changes in the unit -- specifically, to changes in the vigorous physical test that some say is being relaxed to more easily admit women to the all-male squad -- are being stifled by intimidation from superiors. Whatever one thinks about the new standards, the suppression of opposing views represents an alarming return to LAPD's culture of insularity and coercion. The Police Commission should investigate promptly to ensure that the unit's officers are free to speak their minds about this important public policy matter.

Indeed, intimidation flourishes at precisely the point where public scrutiny ceases. Here, the Protective League has taken a more constructive stand, urging that Bratton's touted transparency be applied to the department's SWAT deliberations as well. It's a reminder that not only does the public benefit when police open themselves to examination -- police often do too.

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