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Lift the LAPD consent decree

The sweeping police reforms that L.A. agreed to in 2000 have taken hold. Now oversight of the LAPD should revert to the Police Commission.

May 24, 2009

Under the threat of a lawsuit that it almost certainly would have lost, the city of Los Angeles nine years ago entered into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice that required the Police Department to embark on an ambitious program of reform. The decree was sweeping -- it included hundreds of specific requirements -- and its goal was nothing less than the transformation of a proud, sometimes stubborn police culture. The same department whose officers beat Rodney G. King into submission, embarrassed themselves in the O.J. Simpson murder investigation and shook down drug suspects in the Rampart Division agreed, among other things, to track officers more closely, document the ethnicity of those it detained and tighten its management practices in areas such as the use of force.

From the beginning, there was grumbling, but the reforms forced on the Los Angeles Police Department in 2000 were embraced by Chief William J. Bratton and have become accepted practice. The decree will be reviewed again this summer by U.S. District Judge Gary Feess, who has overseen it all these years. It has been a resounding success, and it should at last be allowed to expire.

That's true despite, not because of, the loudest arguments of those calling for it to be lifted. Bratton and leaders of the Los Angeles Police Protective League have signaled their desire to let the decree go away, but neither has offered a compelling rationale. The league maintains that the LAPD is spending tens of millions of dollars a year to implement the decree's provisions, and that scores of officers would be freed up for patrol duties if the court lifted it. That's false. With or without the decree in place, the LAPD will continue to monitor its officers, investigate uses of force and civilian complaints, and insist that officers do their work without racism or brutality. It will keep doing that not because a federal judge or document requires it, but because it is sound public policy.

As for Bratton, he contends that the decree imposes a stigma on the LAPD, and that lifting it would be good for morale. That's certainly true, but unpersuasive. Working under the scrutiny of a federal court irks some officers, but it has helped restore the department's standing and credibility. If that's tough on morale, so be it. Officers didn't like it much when Bratton criticized the police response to a May Day rally in MacArthur Park in 2007, but he was right to put candor above the possibility of hurt feelings. The same principle should guide here.

The real argument for lifting the decree is that it is has worked. When the decree was first agreed to, public confidence in the LAPD was exhausted (morale, incidentally, was at rock bottom as well). The King beating had exacerbated racial tensions -- almost as shocking as the brutality caught on tape was that none of the officers who witnessed it bothered to report what they'd seen. The department displayed indecision, even cowardice, during the 1992 riots. The Rampart scandal added corruption to the LAPD's litany of public offenses. Today, by contrast, more than 80% of Los Angeles residents believe the LAPD is doing a good or excellent job. Use of force is declining. Crime is dropping. The department, once overwhelmingly white and male, is dramatically diversified.

Indeed, to those who argue that police must be shielded from accountability in order to protect and serve, the modern example of Los Angeles offers a convincing rebuttal. Over the last decade, police here have been watched by a civilian commission, three successive mayors, an attentive media, a federal judge and an appointed monitor. As one study of the department concluded: "The recent history of policing in Los Angeles demonstrates that respecting rights and reducing crime can be achieved together."

Bringing this era to an end would do more than merely congratulate the LAPD on its progress. It would liberate the department to continue its work and to explore new ways of harmonizing accountability with crime-fighting. As long as the decree remains in place, it necessarily focuses the Police Department's leadership on its provisions; failing to fulfill them exposes city leaders to potential sanctions. That prevents backsliding, but it also can discourage fresh thinking. Tomorrow's systems for tracking officers may be more sophisticated than those imaginable in 2000, and locking the LAPD into the decree's provisions indefinitely may thwart new methods of achieving the decree's own goals. It would be tragic if the blueprint for so much progress were to become the obstacle to further creativity.

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