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LAPD gets reform right

The L.A. Police Department showed admirable openness in its handling of the fallout from 2007's May Day melee in MacArthur Park.

February 07, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

This week, the City Council unanimously approved nearly $13 million in payments to settle claims growing out of the May Day police riot at MacArthur Park, during which officers attacked pro-immigration demonstrators who purportedly failed to disperse. Additional suits filed by journalists, who were assaulted while covering the 2007 event, are pending in federal court, so the civic tab is likely to grow.

As usual when considering such matters, the council met behind closed doors, but some of the comments lawmakers made afterward are a pretty good reminder of how far the city has come on police reform, how far it still has to go -- and why the journey has been so difficult.

Council President Eric Garcetti told The Times' Maeve Reston and Joel Rubin that the settlement -- enough to pay for 130 police officers -- "underscores why police reform is as important as police hiring. A handful of old officers can cost the city millions of dollars. We saw that in Rampart; we're seeing that here."

Garcetti gets it.

Several council members, however, said they'd been forced to vote for the settlement because the Los Angeles Police Department's frankness about the misconduct at MacArthur Park, and the discipline it handed out to participants, left them no choice. "They brought officers up on charges; they admitted errors," Councilman Dennis Zine told The Times. "So, when you admit errors, then what are you going to do for a defense?"

Zine and his confreres don't get it.

This isn't about litigation or liability; it's about the city's collective admission -- at long last -- that defending the indefensible is in nobody's long-term interests. To gloss Talleyrand: The way the LAPD conducted itself in the half a century between the appointment of Chief William Parker and the imposition of the federal consent decree was worse than wrong; it was a mistake.

What happened on May 1, 2007, to peaceful Angelenos exercising their right to speak freely affronted the city. That's happened before.

What followed was something entirely novel: William J. Bratton, the reform police chief, immediately demoted and reassigned the deputy chief and the commander who were in charge that day, ordered retraining for the units involved and created a Critical Incident Management Bureau to oversee policing of major public protests and events. Then he ordered a let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may report from his command staff and made that report and its highly critical findings public. More important, he acted on it. He initiated proceedings to suspend 11 officers and to fire four who had used excessive force or lied to investigators.

What's more, at every step of the process, Bratton -- who was appointed by James Hahn -- enjoyed the support of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the civilian police commission for which the chief works. Bratton, as opposed to his predecessors, always is at pains to point out that latter fact.

All this makes the LAPD's response to the May Day riot a landmark in the struggle for police reform. Like the poor, police misconduct always will be with us. The object of reform is to make misconduct an aberration -- and to ensure that the official response is thorough, effective and transparent. The department's and the city's responses to the May Day debacle meet all those criteria, up to and including settlement of the inevitable lawsuits.

Actually, when it comes to police misconduct, reform isn't just the decent thing to do -- it's fiscally prudent. For example, the LAPD's response to the Rampart scandal, under then-Chief Bernard C. Parks and then-Mayor Richard Riordan, was classic: begin with denial, cover up as much as possible and then throw boulders atop the stone wall. The result? The largest payout in the long history of suits against the department -- more than $90 million, including $15 million for Javier Ovando, who was crippled for life after he was shot and left for dead by two LAPD officers. Rodney King's infamous beating cost the city a (relatively) measly $3.8 million to settle; unless, of course, you count the 52 people killed, 2,500 injured and $446 million in property destroyed in the riot that followed the state court acquittal of the officers involved. Then there was the $33 million more the city paid police officers who sued over riot overtime.

But put considerations of justice, decency and plain old fair play aside. If history and the tort system have taught this city and its police force anything, it's that climbing into the bunker and pulling down the steel shutters isn't much of a risk-management strategy.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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