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Righting the Ship 

What it will take to fix the LAPD

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
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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.

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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.”

Several council members most closely involved in policing issues agreed that it was time for drastic action. “We can’t, and we don’t, do it ourselves,” said Laura Chick, past chair of the Public Safety Committee. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg — a point person on several police issues, such as the independence of the Inspector General’s Office — noted that the council’s “failure” had more to do with “massive resistance” from the LAPD than from any lack of council effort.

Other officials were more ready to accept a share of the blame. “As a city, we failed — councils, commissions, chiefs,” confessed Public Safety Committee chairwoman Cindy Miscikowski. The consent decree gives us accountability from the outside” to complete the tasks set out by the Christopher Commission, she added.

The anti-settlement camp focused its fire on the “federal takeover” issue: Hal Bernson, speaking as “someone who’s had to live with a consent decree at the MTA,” was “not prepared to turn over the running of this city to Janet Reno.” Nick Pacheco felt it was strange and unfair to have the LAPD supervised by an authority whose own agencies, the FBI and the INS, had also played a part in the abuse of immigrant communities. Nate Holden accused the council of acting like “15 police chiefs,” and the Police Protective League of being “disruptive,” perhaps because they weren’t getting their desired three-day-shift agreement out of Chief Parks.

The four wild cards in this endgame are Mike Hernandez, Alex Padilla, mayoral aspirant Joel Wachs and John Ferraro, who was absent. The bloc of settlement supporters needs three of them to override an anticipated mayoral veto. Hernandez seemed to have reservations about how much the settlement would cost, and to be disappointed about how little it covered — especially in contrast to the numerous issues raised in Chemerinsky’s report. Padilla mystified observers by maintaining a sphinxlike silence — he is still studying the report, said a staffer. But Wachs, who spoke early and earnestly for thoroughgoing reform, also left doubt about his bottom-line position on the lawsuit question. Opposed from the get-go to negotiating behind closed doors, Wachs reiterated Monday his preference for more input from “stakeholders” (the public and police officers, in particular) in shaping the new LAPD.

What’s vexing to police critics is that, for all the consternation at the City Council, the Justice Department’s proposed agreement may not do enough to bring the LAPD out of its ’50s-era, paramilitary mindset.

The Christopher Commission made a point central to its critique of the department, and civil rights attorney Connie Rice reiterated it emphatically at the police union news conference Monday: “It’s the culture, stupid.” That is, the problem at the LAPD — the problem that won’t go away — is the culture of aggressive control that pervades the department. “Aggression has not lost its primacy in the LAPD culture,” the Chemerinsky report notes.

Chemerinsky goes on to pose a slate of reforms to address just that problem — among them restoration of community policing, specifically by restoring the Senior Lead Officer program (scuttled by Chief Parks), establishment of a policy protecting whistleblowers from departmental retaliation and creation of a panel of experts, in Chemerinsky’s words, “to forge a culture-transformation blueprint.”

The report also calls for independent inquiries into the failure of the district attorney and the city attorney to spot and react to corruption at the Rampart Division. None of these measures are being contemplated by the Justice Department, however, or by Chief Parks in his report. Councilman Joel Wachs, for one, finds the omissions critical — so critical that he’s considering casting his vote against any reform measure that fails to address these underlying issues. “We have two reports,” i.e., the chief’s and the Justice Department’s, “that don’t get to the heart of the problem,” Wachs said.”

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