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Councilman proposes rescinding term limits for LAPD chief

March 26, 2009|Phil Willon and Joel Rubin
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson called Wednesday for public hearings on whether to rescind the two-term limit for the city's police chief, a change that would allow William J. Bratton to serve as head of the Los Angeles Police Department until 2017.

Removing the term limits would require voter approval and revise one aspect of the police reforms that stemmed from the riots after four LAPD officers were initially acquitted of brutality in the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King. Those reforms limited the police chief to two five-year terms.

Bratton is the first LAPD chief to serve a second five-year term since voters approved the reforms in 1992. Previous chiefs Bernard C. Parks and Willie L. Williams each served one term and were not reappointed by the city's civilian Police Commission.

"Why would you not want to have an option to retain a person who is doing a good job?" asked Wesson, who plans to bring a motion before the City Council on Friday seeking public hearings. "I think at this point, we just want to begin the conversation."

The councilman said the idea of changing the city charter is "not about Bratton" but about whether the city should have the option to retain a seasoned and successful police chief. Still, he said, Bratton is a prime example of a chief the city would be wise to keep around.

Bratton, in a brief interview, said Wesson mentioned "in passing" a few weeks ago that he was considering a move to lift the term limit but that they had not discussed the issue since.

With more than three years left in his second term, the 61-year-old Bratton said it was too early to say whether he would be interested in signing on for another five-year term. He said, however, that abolishing the term limit would be an important step in moving the department out of the shadow cast by the King beating.

"For me personally, it might be an option down the road. . . . But it also, I think, would be an important step toward putting a very tumultuous period behind us," he said.

Under Wesson's motion, the chief could be appointed to an additional term only if four of the five police commissioners recommend the move. It then would require the mayor's approval, as well as confirmation by at least a two-thirds vote of the City Council.

Police Commissioners Alan Skobin and Andrea Ordin said they were opposed to the idea but welcomed public hearings to hear the rationale of supporters.

Skobin recalled former LAPD Chief Ed Davis telling him that "the right amount of time for a police chief is eight to 10 years. He believed it takes five years for someone to make their mark and to put things into place, and another few years to make sure those changes have been institutionalized. After that it is time to step aside to make sure the chief doesn't become part of the institution. I have always felt that he was right."

"At some point, even the very best person needs to step aside and let someone else step in," Skobin said.

Paul M. Weber, president of the union that represents rank-and-file officers, said he supported a wholesale change in how the chief is selected.

"It is time for city leaders to explore making the LAPD police chief position an elected rather than appointed position. With the elected chief, the public will know exactly who is in charge and therefore responsible and accountable."

Former Mayor James K. Hahn picked Bratton to be police chief in 2002. The former Boston street cop and New York City police commissioner applied to serve a second, and final, five-year term as LAPD chief in 2007 and received the Police Commission's unanimous approval.

"It's clear that the city parents want to keep him as long as they possibly can," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton who has long studied police-community relations in Los Angeles. "The real bar is the mayor. If the mayor really doesn't want someone to be chief, then it really doesn't matter what the Police Commission or the council want to do."

Placing term limits on the chief was among the recommendations made by the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, known as the Christopher Commission, after the King beating and subsequent riots.

"You need to have new blood after a certain time, new energy," said Los Angeles attorney Richard E. Drooyan, who served on the Christopher Commission. "Ten years is a very good term, longer than most elected officials serve."

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phil.willon@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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