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Officer payment program criticized

May 23, 2008|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

A little-known Los Angeles police union program that reimburses officers for wages lost as a result of misconduct suspensions has been roundly criticized by law enforcement and management experts, who say the practice seriously undermines officer discipline.

"It tends to make the discipline process somewhat meaningless," said Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center.

He said the ability to recoup the docked pay "also sets up a presumption among officers that any punishment that is handed down is unwarranted. And that attitude is not good."

David Lewin, a UCLA professor who trained top New York police officials in management strategies, echoed Bobb.

"The practice is a bad one, and I don't think it's even a close call," he said. "What you're trying to do with discipline is to get people to correct their actions . . . but this is working at complete cross-purposes to that. The officers don't have the same motivation to eliminate their misconduct. It also sets a tone that I would be worried about. It gives rise to a mentality that 'If I can game the system here, I'll be looking around for places where I can game it elsewhere.' "

Los Angeles Police Department observers, however, also noted that the reimbursement plan did not arise out of nowhere.

The Police Protective League, which represents the department's 9,300 rank-and-file officers, began the program in 2001, when most officers viewed the disciplinary system as inconsistent and draconian, according to union officials and other police experts.

"I really do understand the history of unfair punishment and politicized punishment in the LAPD," said Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney and longtime LAPD watchdog. "It is completely legitimate for the union to zealously defend its officers, but I think this goes too far. . . . It undermines the department's ability to get across what it will and won't tolerate of its officers."

More than 7,000 officers -- about three-quarters of the union's membership -- pay $20 each month on top of their regular dues to participate in the policy, which covers up to 25 days of suspension each year. The pool of money is dipped into with regularity, with the union approving an average of five claims each week.

To receive the money, which can total several hundred dollars a day for higher-ranking detectives and lieutenants, the officer must opt not to appeal the department's punishment to an independent review panel. The union provides attorneys to officers who choose to fight their punishments.

After years without a challenge, the program came under harsh and sudden scrutiny when Anthony Pacheco, president of the civilian commission that oversees the LAPD, made impromptu comments about it at the opening of a public meeting earlier this week. He ordered department officials to investigate the policy's effect on discipline.

Pacheco first heard about the reimbursements at a recent meeting with top LAPD brass. The program, he said, was mentioned in passing during a conversation about other disciplinary issues.

Union leaders staunchly defended the program, saying it was a necessary safety net to protect officers and their families from the hardship that comes from lost pay.

The department's top disciplinary official, Deputy Chief Mark Perez, and Commissioner Alan Skobin downplayed concerns about the reimbursements, saying suspensions remain on officers' records and can be barriers to promotions and pay raises.

Union officials said they are unaware of any other major law enforcement union in the country that offers a similar insurance policy. A small association that represents some Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies repays lost wages at no additional cost to members.

Beyond drawing public attention to the union's policy, there is little, if anything, commissioners can do about it. They have no authority over union matters and the imposition of discipline rests entirely with Police Chief William J. Bratton.

Regardless, Pacheco and others agreed that the debate has injected a sense of immediacy into much broader discussions going on inside the LAPD about how to reform a disciplinary system that is increasingly viewed as outdated and overly focused on punishment instead of remediation.

"Because the overarching issue is disciplinary reform, the buck stops with Chief Bratton, and that's a good thing, because if he can restore confidence in the disciplinary system then none of this will be necessary," Councilman Jack Weiss, chairman of the city's public safety committee, wrote in an e-mail.

Michael Gennaco, head of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department watchdog agency and a longtime LAPD observer, suggested that the LAPD would be smart to embrace a less rigid and less punitive approach to discipline -- an unfamiliar, uncomfortable idea in law enforcement and one that has been slow to take root in the LAPD.

"It's unfortunate that the only things available are suspensions, terminations and letters of reprimand. I really don't think that's enough," Gennaco said. "The effort to try to come up with a remedial plan that maybe involves counseling, that maybe requires a letter of apology to a resident is much more creative but is more difficult and time-consuming as well."

Pacheco said he expects to have wide-ranging meetings on disciplinary reform in coming weeks.

"Everything needs to be on the table as we try figure out what's the best way to approach discipline -- to make the process as fair as possible for everybody, including the officers and the community. It is a balance," he said.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

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