By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Sobodan Dmitrov|
If sheer paper volume were a determining factor in setting the course of the LAPD, then this city’s police department would be well on its way to reform.
Police Chief Bernard Parks set the tone in March with his 362-page report on the “Rampart Area Corruption Incident,” alternately hailed as a groundbreaking testament to the chief’s commitment to clean policing and derided as a self-protecting whitewash.
Now comes the U.S. Department of Justice, and its 84-page roster of reform, which the city must accept or face a federal lawsuit. At the same time, the L.A. Police Protective League, the union representing the LAPD’s rank-and-file, has compiled its own 150-page document critiquing Parks’ self-criticism and proposing yet another reform agenda, this one more far-reaching than any that has come before.
And yet, nearly 10 years and two police chiefs after the Rodney King beating, Los Angeles seems no closer to reforming its police department than when the Christopher Commission issued its landmark agenda for change. While significant reforms were, in fact, enacted, they were diluted to the degree that LAPD Officer Rafael Perez and his band of rogues could operate undetected for years, their misdeeds finally coming to light only because Perez himself chose to spill the beans.
The key obstacles to change at the LAPD — the mayor, the chief of police and a passive Police Commission — all remain in place, with Mayor Richard Riordan and Chief Parks adamant that no outside agency or official be given authority over the department. And even if the Justice Department succeeds in forcing the city to accept intervention, its detailed agenda is so limited in scope that some reform advocates are thinking of opposing it.
Critics are hoping that Perez’s confession will finally spur real change at a department that has maintained its hard-nosed approach to policing despite decades of criticism, controversy and litigation. As Erwin Chemerinsky, the civil rights attorney who drafted the police-union study, put it Monday, “We see the Rampart scandal as a rare window of opportunity to institute reform at the LAPD. We want to seize that opportunity.”
But the official reception of his report, presented at a Monday-morning news conference hosted by City Councilman Joel Wachs, was less than promising. Chief Parks sniped later that day, “Mr. Chemerinsky and the union are in bed together.” And at the City Council on Tuesday, while members were eloquent on the city’s history of failure, they themselves failed to muster the consensus that could override a Riordan veto.
Seven council members, including the entire Westside delegation of Mike Feuer, Ruth Galanter and Cindy Miscikowski, welcomed the Department of Justice intervention, differing mainly in the degree to which they were grateful that an outside agency had finally stepped in where the council had feared to tread. Four council members (Hal Bernson, Nate Holden, Nick Pacheco and Rudy Svorinich) signaled their opposition to the letter and/or spirit of the consent decree proposed by the Department of Justice. They took issue variously with the fine print, the “message it sends” to the cop on the street, and the sheer effrontery of anyone presuming to second-guess Chief Parks. Another four members were either absent, silent, or so ambiguous they could not be clearly assigned to either camp.
The issue was thrown into the council’s end of the court when the city’s designated negotiators failed to reach agreement with the Justice Department, or even to reach an internal consensus on the city’s own bottom-line position. While they accepted most of the Justice proposals, negotiators were split on some fundamental ones — most important, on whether to accept a court-appointed monitor. Tellingly, representatives of Chief Parks and Mayor Riordan are still â holding out for the looser strictures of a “memorandum of understanding,” though Attorney General Janet Reno has made it clear that a consent decree is L.A.’s only alternative to finding itself in court.
Negotiators were also split over the scope of the proposed computer system to track problem officers, a key plank in the Christopher Commission reforms that has yet to be installed. The city’s team is also balking at demands for an audit of past LAPD handling of contacts with the mentally ill, and for Justice Department oversight of new policies for dealing with such encounters. City negotiators are also skeptical of Justice Department requirements that the LAPD monitor and audit warrantless searches. Finally, some of the negotiators are resisting the feds’ demand to keep a color count of pedestrian and traffic stops, an essential step toward checking racial profiling.
City Attorney James Hahn, a member of the negotiating team, made it clear that he’s part of the faction that is willing to play ball with Washington. Hahn pointed out that the council faces a lawsuit it can’t win. The consent decree was not the “federal takeover” that some opponents had called it, he advised; the feds would play a much greater role in shaping LAPD policy if the city litigated and lost. Police Commissioner Gerald Chaleff gave Hahn a succinct seconding: “It’s a good document, and we should go forward with it.”