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No Respect 

Police Commission falters on Rampart

Wednesday, May 17 2000
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As they scramble to restore order and confidence in a department torn by the Rampart scandal, the five mayor-appointed members of the Los Angeles Police Commission have been hit this spring with widespread criticism, and sometimes abuse. They ”can‘t get no respect“ anywhere. They have weathered, with outward aplomb, the criticism in the streets -- angry victims of LAPD abuse and adverse public-opinion polls. But now criticism from the suites -- skeptical council members and Department of Justice (DOJ) accusations of lax management -- has thwarted the commission’s ability to steer the Rampart-crisis investigation and shape its remedies.

As the number of critics increased, the commission responded by adding to its work force -- the now 100-plus attorneys, experts and citizens it enlisted to assess problems and solutions. With the federal DOJ‘s civil rights agency joining the game, expansion and enlargement may prove inadequate survival strategies.

The DOJ’s agenda prioritizes certain reforms, notably tracking problem officers and changing shooting-investigation procedures. It‘s unclear how the commission’s plodding investigative schedule will mesh with the Justice Department‘s needs to conclude an agreement with the city.

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On the City Council, where the commission’s support is shaky, there are now two contradictory pressures. Councilman Michael Feuer wants the commission to shift into overdrive to keep the city in the feds‘ good graces. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and others say slow down. Ridley-Thomas, in fact, thinks the right gear for the commission’s panel is park -- at least until the feds clarify their requirements and the panel develops a broader membership and a work style more open to public view.

Yet, even if all the critics could be silenced, a review of the last two months shows many of the commission‘s problems to be of its own making.

The first ordeal for the commissioners -- well, some of them -- was trekking around to unfamiliar neighborhoods this spring to hear local reactions to Chief Bernard Parks’ wide-ranging Board of Inquiry Report on what went wrong at Rampart and why. Their tour only got them yelled at, sworn at and told how useless they had been as overseers. Then an L.A. Times poll revealed that most Angelenos had no faith in their leadership either, three-quarters of them wanting an independent body created to handle the scandal.

On April 12, three days after the poll, the commission, capturing the right rhetoric, unveiled at a news conference what it called the Rampart Independent Review Panel, some two dozen topflight attorneys and expert consultants. Though weeks in preparation, the unveiling got a mixed reception. Barely an hour after the news conference, the commission‘s Asian Pacific Islander Police Advisory Council testified before the City Council regarding the need for an independent review of Rampart and a new commission to investigate the LAPD. The next day, the commission’s inspector general told a meeting of downtown lawyers that commissioners were often psychological captives of the LAPD command, subject to ”Stockholm syndrome,“ in which hostages adopt the views of their captors, and that he had to count votes every morning to assess whether the commission was behind him on police-reform decisions. Leaders of ethnic organizations blasted the panel‘s overwhelmingly white composition. Others pointed out the group’s lack of economic and occupational diversity, and reiterated their indictment of its limited scope and autonomy.

Of the seven ongoing investigations into the Rampart scandal, the commission‘s work could portend the greatest changes for the city’s policing practices. Yet its grip on the unfolding civic theater also appears the most tenuous, especially with the mushrooming federal role. It‘s true that the City Council, by a 9-6 majority, has twice affirmed its confidence that the commission can do the job, and none of the nine has publicly changed heart. But council aides say that, behind the scenes, support has eroded.

Whatever public-relations mileage the title ”Rampart Independent Review Panel“ may have been meant to provide, all four words in it are misleading -- two of them understatement, two exaggeration.

The all-volunteer body of attorneys named at the April conference has a scope considerably larger than Rampart problems, and its charge is broader than ”review“ of Chief Parks’ inquiry and report. Only one of the eight research topics is Rampart restricted; the others apply citywide. After examining issues of discipline, training, police culture and the use of force, among other things, recommendations a are expected, said commission President Gerald Chaleff, that ”may lead to profound changes in the way the LAPD operates and in which it is managed.“

On the other hand, by no stretch of the imagination is the group independent -- as, says the commission‘s own news release, it is ”working under the overall direction and guidance of“ a troika consisting of the commission’s executive director, Joseph Gunn; LAPD Inspector General Jeffrey Eglash; and Richard Drooyan, formerly deputy general counsel for the Christopher Commission. Nor do the attorneys and other consultants constitute a ”panel“ at all, as there is no provision in the work plan for them to decide anything as a group -- or even meet together -- at any point during their assignments. Each appointee has been assigned to one of eight ”working groups“ on such subjects as civilian oversight and ”risk management,“ which will submit eight separate reports periodically; these are then to be ”merged together“ by Gunn, Eglash and Drooyan for submission to the commission in the fall.

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