The Los Angeles Police Department on Tuesday made its case for why officers often are given warnings, instead of suspensions, for drunk driving, domestic disputes and other serious types of misconduct.
Deputy Chief Mark Perez appeared before the civilian Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD and has raised concerns in recent months about the department's unconventional approach to disciplining officers. Perez presented preliminary discipline figures that, he said, showed officers who received the warnings recommitted the same type of misconduct far less often than those who were suspended.
"I know it's counterintuitive," Perez told the commission. "And I know it can be like biting a lemon knowing someone is getting a reprimand instead of a suspension. But so far it is working."
For decades, the LAPD followed a traditional system of discipline that relied heavily on suspensions without pay as a way to punish officers. Officers who repeatedly committed the same type of offense received incrementally longer suspensions until ultimately being fired. Then, in 2007, Chief William J. Bratton gave Perez the go-ahead to roll out a different model that emphasized "strategy over penalty" — a mantra Perez repeats often to explain the department's new focus on changing the way a troublesome officer thinks and behaves, instead of simply suspending him or her.
Chief Charlie Beck, Perez and others said they did not believe suspensions do much to dissuade misconduct. It is particularly ineffective, they said, in the LAPD, where the union representing rank-and-file officers offers an insurance program that pays officers their salaries for the days they are suspended.
Though the new model allowed for suspensions in more egregious cases, the centerpiece were the warnings, called "conditional official reprimands." An officer who receives a conditional reprimand is not punished for the offense but is put on notice that another offense of the same sort will bring a severe penalty and possible termination. Perez and other proponents have said the new approach is more effective at changing officers' behavior and allows the department to get rid of incorrigible cops more swiftly than before.
As the department has moved away from traditional ideas of discipline, the number of officers suspended has plummeted. During a four-month period last year, for example, 12 officers were suspended a total of 128 days. By comparison, 60 officers were sent home for 558 days during the same period in 2009, records show.
Commission members were supportive of the concept, but they balked last summer when they learned the department was using conditional official reprimands not only in cases of minor mistakes but also for officers who drove while drunk, used excessive force on suspects and were involved in domestic altercations and other types of serious transgressions.
Their apprehension grew when Perez told them the department had no guidelines for when and how conditional official reprimands should be used. They ordered Perez to return with a detailed report on the conditional reprimands, which he did Tuesday.
In his report, Perez listed several types of serious misconduct for which an officer would not be eligible to receive a conditional official reprimand. They included any felony, a domestic dispute in which the officer becomes physically violent, and a drunk-driving accident in which the officer injures another person.
But he also reiterated the department's stance that it will give conditional official reprimands in other types of serious cases. In drunk-driving cases, for example, if no one is injured and the officer is cooperative at the scene, he or she is eligible for a warning.
In the report, Perez said a review of the nearly 200 conditional official reprimands issued since they began in 2008 turned up only four cases in which officers committed the same or similar type of misconduct. By comparison, the rate of recidivism under the old discipline system was about six times higher, Perez said.
Though commissioners largely praised Perez for the report, they held off giving their full support. Instead, they ordered Beck and Perez to return in a few months with a formal policy that command staff will be required to follow when deciding whether to issue a conditional official reprimand.
A majority of the five-person commission — President Richard Drooyan, John Mack and Robert Saltzman — said afterward that they remained concerned that the department was using the warnings in cases in which the officers should perhaps be treated more firmly with suspensions.
To keep tabs on the issue, Drooyan instructed the commission's inspector general to continue to track how the department is using the conditional reprimands.
There is, however, only so much the commission can do to sway how Beck and Perez use the warnings. Under city rules, the authority to discipline officers rests with the chief, not the commission.