Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck at a crime scene. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
A growing number of Los Angeles police officers who have used excessive force, driven while intoxicated, falsely imprisoned people or committed other serious misconduct are being let off without punishment as part of a new, controversial approach to discipline at the LAPD.
Instead of handing down suspensions without pay, as was the norm for such offenses, police officials increasingly are putting officers on notice that another gaffe of the same sort will bring a severe penalty and possible termination.
The strategy, called a "conditional official reprimand" in LAPD jargon, is the centerpiece of a philosophical change to discipline the department has been rolling out slowly in recent years. The new model, police officials say, is more effective at improving officers' behavior and allows the department to get rid of incorrigible cops more swiftly than before.
But as the use of conditional reprimands has jumped dramatically — 14 were issued in 2008 compared to 109 in 2010 — they have drawn scrutiny and criticism from the Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the department. At a public meeting late last month, commissioners raised concerns over the use of the reprimands to resolve serious offenses, for which they believe officers should be punished more harshly.
"The way it's being handled minimizes the seriousness of these situations," Commissioner Alan Skobin told Deputy Chief Mark Perez, who oversees discipline. "If an officer commits a criminal act — the two good examples are DUIs and domestic violence — there is some real angst … when, basically, in the department the worst thing that happens is that they're being told, 'The next time you do that it's going to be serious.' "
Perez, who runs the department's Professional Standards Bureau, is the architect of the LAPD's new take on how to deal with troublesome officers. Under Chief Charlie Beck and his predecessor, William Bratton, the 29-year LAPD veteran began working to design a system that, as he often says, emphasizes "strategy over penalty."
"We have to lead as if we're going to progress past just punishing people and expecting that to get anything done," Perez told the commission.
In the traditional approach to police discipline, cops are given a punishment that is thought to be in line with the seriousness of the offense they committed. In rare, extreme cases, such as an officer convicted of a violent crime, a first-time offense can lead to the officer's being fired. It is far more common, however, for an officer to receive a written admonition or a suspension. Punishments are often incremental, becoming somewhat more severe if an officer commits the same type of misconduct repeatedly.
In the LAPD, for example, officers could be caught driving drunk three or four times before being fired, Beck said. A first drunk driving offense typically carried a suspension ranging from five to 10 days. The second time, the officer might be given 15 days off and the third time a special contract would likely be imposed to require the officer to attend counseling and otherwise behave.
Similar to the way prison sentences are used to deter and punish criminals, this strategy assumes that the threat of punishment will keep officers from stepping out of line.
Perez and Beck, however, do not believe this sort of discipline does much to dissuade misconduct. It is particularly ineffective, they said in interviews, in a department like the LAPD, where the union representing rank-and-file officers offers an insurance program that pays officers their salaries for days they are suspended.
"For the 35 years I've been in this organization, we've been trying to make this work and it hasn't been effective," Beck said. "It does not set consequences for the officers."
Instead, Perez has been pushing the notion that officers are more likely to change their behavior if they are made to think about their misconduct and how it undermined the department's fundamental mission of protecting the city, along with its reputation and the officer's own self-interest.
The conditional reprimands are a main component to this idea. According to Perez, when an officer receives one, he is supposed to have an extensive discussion with his commanding officer about the misconduct, accept responsibility and explain how he plans to change his behavior in the future. The terms of each reprimand stipulate what the punishment will be if the officer recommits the same or a similar offense. And, depending on the seriousness of the misconduct, reprimands typically remain in effect for three years, five years or for as long as the officer remains at the LAPD, Perez said.