Now that Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton has announced that he is leaving his job in October, the popular law enforcer has become practically untouchable. But for the future of policing in Los Angeles, an independent inquiry is needed into whether his departure involved a conflict of interest that has compromised the latest chapter of police reform.
In May 2001, the Los Angeles City Council selected a former New York prosecutor, Michael Cherkasky, and the firm he then ran, Kroll Associates, to be the independent monitor overseeing police reforms mandated by a federal consent decree in the wake of the Rampart scandal. A leading member of Cherkasky's monitoring team under the five-year, $11-million contract was William Bratton, former New York City police chief and a senior consultant at Kroll.
For a period of months before applying for the LAPD chief's job, Bratton worked for Cherkasky on the consent decree, contributing to reports the monitor prepared for the city. On Oct. 2, 2002, Bratton became LAPD chief. There were obvious red flags even then: The man monitoring the city's compliance with a federal decree was the friend and former employer of the man he was supposed to be monitoring. Was this really the sort of independent, conflict-free relationship required of a monitor?
It is not clear whether Bratton and Cherkasky interacted professionally outside the framework of the consent decree, but we now know, according to what Cherkasky recently told this newspaper, that the two men had always hoped to work together again. In July, Cherkasky told the federal judge overseeing the consent decree that the LAPD had sufficiently reformed itself and recommended the consent decree be lifted. In the same month, Cherkasky created Altegrity, a new holding company for his expanding security business. On Aug. 5, the former monitor hired Bratton to run a subsidiary, Altegrity Security Consulting. It all raises questions that should have a public airing.
If Cherkasky knew it was unlikely Bratton would leave his job before the decree was lifted, and if Cherkasky wanted to hire Bratton, then didn't the monitor have a business interest in lifting the consent decree?
Bratton has done a lot of good in Los Angeles. But what will happen now that the chief is departing and the decree has been lifted?
The question is why the decree was lifted now, before a number of critical reforms were achieved.
In a 2009 Harvard University study of the department's reforms, the authors found much to praise, concluding that "the LAPD of today is a changed organization" and lauding the department for achieving unprecedented public approval, greater responsiveness to minority communities, and reductions in the use of excessive force.
But it also noted some potentially disturbing findings, including:
* A 17% increase in the use of nonlethal force (stun guns, bean bags, etc.) in the LAPD's Central Bureau during the last three years.
* "A troubling pattern" in which African Americans are "subjects of the use of such force out of proportion to their share of involuntary contacts with the LAPD."
* A doubling of total pedestrian stops in six years and a 40% rise in vehicle stops, overwhelmingly in the inner city.
* "Steep increases" in arrests for minor offenses because of "police management decisions to use arrest powers more aggressively for less serious crimes." There were an average of 298 arrests a day last year for what the Harvard report describes as minor crimes.
* A complete rejection by the department of citizen complaints of racial profiling. Internal investigators upheld none of 1,200 reports from citizens made between 2003 and 2008.
* A near-complete rejection of complaints of "officer discourtesy." Of 2,368 complaints filed, the LAPD concurred in only 1.6% of the cases. Moreover, a survey revealed that 85% of LAPD officers consider citizen complaints frivolous.
This evidence suggests a work in progress, not a fully reformed police department. Worse, the Harvard analysts cast serious doubt on the capability of local authorities to hold the LAPD accountable in the absence of federal oversight. The office of LAPD inspector general, created in 1996 as a result of earlier controversies, was commended by the report, but it also noted that the office has only "modest" powers and that the Police Department is free to ignore its recommendations. The report noted that if the Police Commission had been performing its oversight role well, a monitor would have been unnecessary. But as the report notes, police commissioners are unpaid and the inspector general's office cannot conduct independent or parallel investigations of its own.
As the city-funded "Rampart Reconsidered" report concluded in 2007, "The federal court is the only entity with the independence, power and sustained focus capable of ensuring that the city and the LAPD maintain current reform efforts." Now that watchdog is gone, thanks to Cherkasky's endorsement that his once and future partner, Chief Bratton, has improved the department to the point it no longer needs an outside eye.
We have to hope he was right.