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The Insiders 

Time for oversight panel, inspector general to step from the shadows

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
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It‘s hard to decide which was the more humiliating moment for the members of the Los Angeles Police Commission on the day, early this month, that LAPD Chief Bernard Parks presented his long-awaited report on the Rampart Division scandal to the press and public.

Moment number one came immediately after Parks, flanked by 15 starched and pressed members of his command staff, had finished his address to a Parker Center auditorium packed with about 75 journalists and at least 25 television cameras.

After verbally waving off every pointed question as one would swat at an annoying fly, Parks left the stage. Just before he did so, however, the press was reminded not to go away. The Police Commission was ready to take any questions we might have. With that, cops and press bolted for the exits.

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Los Angeles’ civilian Police Commission -- the body held responsible by the City Charter for setting the LAPD‘s policy, giving the chief his marching orders and overseeing the department’s performance -- was left standing on the stage wearing shit-eating grins and no clothes, totally irrelevant to the unfolding story of one of the worst police scandals in city history.

Humiliating moment number two occurred shortly thereafter, out of sight of the commission and inside the mayor‘s cramped eighth-floor City Hall media room, where Richard Riordan was holding his own press conference. Like Chief Parks, Mayor Riordan tried to brush off the Rampart Division scandal as if it had happened in Jersey City, and on somebody else’s watch. Before he‘d even read it, Riordan dubbed the 362-page report the most detailed and honest inquiry ”in the history of mankind.“

After about half an hour, as the mayor exited through one door, an ungodly knocking rattled a second door, at the other end of the room. When someone opened it, in swept Laura Chick, Ruth Galanter, Jackie Goldberg, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Rita Walters -- a full third of the City Council -- and they were hot. First their staff members, and then they themselves, had been locked out of the mayor’s press conference.

While venting their rage at the mayor, they aimed their contempt squarely at the Police Commission. ”My confidence in the Police Commission has been shaken,“ said Chick, chair of the council‘s public-safety committee. She and other city officials, said Chick, ”have asked [the commission] hard questions and have basically been told over and over, ’You don‘t run the department, you don’t oversee the department. We do.‘“

Several days earlier, that level of frustration had led Councilman Joel Wachs to move for an outside inquiry. The motion failed by an 8-6 vote, but the narrow margin underscored the council’s growing doubts that the commission could be independent of the mayor‘s influence, conduct its own investigation or produce anything other than John Ehrlichman’s Watergate-inspired modified-limited-hangout. ”What,“ Chick asked, ”have they been doing for the last six and a half years?“

On Tuesday, Inspector General Jeff Eglash and the Police Commission‘s executive director, Joe Gunn, sought to answer that question with a strongly worded memorandum on how to proceed with the commission’s investigation. Commission President Gerald Chaleff followed by defending the commission: ”It has been somewhat frustrating to remain silent throughout the last few weeks and months when there‘s been a constant [call] for an independent review of the Board of Inquiry and the Police Department, when I knew at all times that that’s the job of the Los Angeles Police Commission. I think . . . the adoption of [today‘s] report and the future actions of the Police Commission will show that independent civilian oversight has always been present in Los Angeles, and that’s the Los Angeles Police Commission.“

Always? Should Chaleff re-examine the performance of his commission in particular, and of almost every other Police Commission over the past half-century, he might better understand the public and official skepticism he seeks to dispel.

It was William H. Parker who founded both the modern-day LAPD and the tradition of autocratic chiefs refusing to tolerate any ”outside“ interference in running the department. From Parker‘s appointment in 1950, LAPD chiefs dominated the part-time, civilian commissioners through a combination of intimidation, ego massage and control over the flow of information, becoming what former Police Commission President Stephen Reinhardt once described as ”masters of non-disclosure.“

That was meant to change when the Christopher Commission reforms limited the chief’s tenure and created an inspector general to cut through the fog shrouding the LAPD‘s inner workings. The I.G. was to be the knowledgeable, plugged-in eyes and ears of the commission and the public. In practice, however, Riordan, Parks and even the commission itself fiercely fought to limit the I.G.’s power. Parks won that battle, a victory that helped lead the department down the road to Rampart.

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