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Case closed, but why?

The LAPD's May Day disciplinary hearings will be secret. That's bad for the public and the officers.

September 23, 2008

Last year's May Day police fiasco injured scores of immigrant-rights demonstrators and media figures gathered peaceably in MacArthur Park, but Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton averted an even bigger casualty by swiftly acknowledging his department's failures in planning, command and communication. The incident could have cost the city hard-won trust that had begun to develop between the police and communities that rely on, but are suspicious of, the department. Bratton's response salvaged the gains and built on them.

By rights, Los Angeles should now be able to close the door on the whole embarrassing incident. Last week, Bratton recommended that four officers be fired and 11 disciplined because of their actions in the "melee." But for all of Bratton's efforts at transparency, the final and perhaps most important chapter of the May Day probe will elude public oversight and will, unfortunately, leave questions about whether the responsible parties were held to account.

Are they the right officers to punish? Are they being unfairly scapegoated for administrative bungling? Do their actions warrant even stiffer penalties? The public will never know -- because the Police Commission two years ago scrapped the open board of rights hearings that served the city well for more than a quarter of a century. Now, the 15 officers will present their appeals and be punished or exonerated without the public even knowing who they are.

It shouldn't be this way. City lawyers and the Police Commission were overly cautious in their interpretation of a 2006 state Supreme Court case on personnel records. There was an easy solution: Clarify the law to ensure that Los Angeles could continue to keep its hearings open. But despite efforts to do just that by Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), lawmakers caved in to pressure from police unions that claim transparency endangers their members. In hearings on Romero's bills, no evidence to that effect was presented, but police unions have the clout to get their way in Sacramento.

That's a shame -- especially now, when open hearings would serve to protect the accused officers just as much as the public's faith in the police and in the disciplinary process. A new legislative session begins at the end of this year and brings another chance for the unions to see that, in this case, their interests and the public's coincide.

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