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Departmentally Disturbed

Why can‘t the LAPD be more like the Sheriff’s Department? By which I mean, why is it so resistant to meritorious criticism, and prone to cloak its operations as if it were some arcane sect?

Put it another way. Why can‘t Los Angeles junk its demonstrably futile system of police governance and come up with something that works better -- like the Special Counsel’s Office that oversees the county Sheriff‘s Department?

Two developments fuel this question: First, the special counsel -- better, if inaccurately, known as the Kolts Commission -- last week filed its latest six-month update on how well the state’s largest police department is doing. In many ways, it‘s one of the most critical such reports in recent years. But it also records how the sheriff has made its previous suggestions into departmental routine.

Second was the L.A. Times’ Sunday-Monday report on the LAPD‘s fatal shootings of mentally disturbed people. With its all-too-familiar straight-faced response from its leadership -- in this case, Deputy Chief Martin Pomeroy, sitting in for Chief Bernie Parks: ”In a long and difficult case, if you nitpick, you’re liable to find something you disagree with, but that doesn‘t invalidate the overall finding.“

The Times found that LAPD training is woefully inadequate when it comes to handling mentally ill people. Certainly, nearly a dozen possibly unnecessary shooting deaths of disturbed individuals is something most of us can disagree with, chief. Particularly since the problem is now decades old.

The Times commenced its investigation in the aftermath of the La Brea--area shooting of Margaret Mitchell this summer. Dragging out the records of 37 similar shootings since 1994, it found a pattern that included provocative action by police, selective interviewing and recording of witnesses afterward, and a process of interviewing the involved officers themselves that nearly amounted to coaching.

”Internal investigations . . . missed or ignored key eyewitnesses. Officers involved also appeared to be guided by detectives during questioning . . .“ were cited. What’s more, videotapes of two shootings failed to corroborate the official line that the victim resisted.

The Times suggested that the fault lay in bad training. Cadets reportedly got less than four hours of instruction in the mental-health area, little of it dealing with how actually to handle the mentally disturbed in dangerous situations.

But the real snafu is that it took a major newspaper‘s committed, monthslong efforts to discern a problem that the department’s overseers should have been aware of. The pattern of bad LAPD interaction with the mentally ill and the mentally disturbed homeless looks systemic. By now, as the Times related, other big police departments handle these cases better. But the LAPD keeps shooting people like 55-year-old, 5-foot-1 Margaret Mitchell.

So what‘s the LAPD’s excuse? How about denial? But this isn‘t really another occasion for Bernie bashing. Two of the shootings cited were on former Chief Willie Williams’ watch. The problem may go back to Williams‘ predecessor, Daryl Gates, who explained away the notorious 1979 shooting of Eulia Love. So this is an institutional problem. And without suggesting for a moment that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is a perfect police force, it does have something the LAPD desperately lacks: a monitoring system that can tell the department what is wrong and what to do about the problem, and expect compliance.

The county‘s Kolts Commission originated this review process when it was a cross-town sibling of the 1991 Christopher Commission empaneled to reform the LAPD. At that time, Rodney King’s beating was the major local police issue. But Sheriff‘s deputies’ similar abuse of force was costing Los Angeles County tens of millions a year in litigation as the county tottered on the brim of bankruptcy. So the county Board of Supervisors took a step disdained by the Los Angeles City Council. They made their commission permanent by appointing attorney Merrick Bobb -- who assisted Judge James Kolts in the original research -- as Los Angeles Sheriff‘s Department special counsel. Bobb’s lengthy biennial reports remain the department‘s road maps to improvement. It was the first of these reports, issued in 1993, that criticized deputies for provoking confrontations with suspects. A problem which, the Times found, persists in the LAPD, at least when it comes to the mentally ill.

Bobb says there’s no breakdown for LASD shootings of the mentally ill. But according to his latest report, the number of all persons deputies killed in the line of duty between 1991 and 1998 dropped from 23 to 11. According to the Police Commission, the LAPD doesn‘t break out the fatalities from its total officer-involved-shooting tally. Which is interesting. But the overall total of shootings for 1997 was 73. The Sheriff’s was 55 for 1997 and 35 for last year. Considering that the departments have about the same strength, and that the populations patrolled by the Sheriff and the LAPD are each around 3.5 million, that‘s an impressive difference.

Bobb’s latest report records the Sheriff‘s setbacks and progress -- last year, for instance, the Century station was singled out as the department’s Fort Apache; this year --after effecting recommended changes -- it‘s quieted down.

But Bobb and staff are now engaged with Sheriff Lee Baca’s command structure on the issue of the personal-performance index, an individual evaluation for all Sheriff‘s deputies. It’s a hard fight, because the rank and file fear that their records will be willfully misinterpreted by their commanders (distrust of superiors tends to run high in law enforcement). Meanwhile the command staff urges dumping older personnel files, partly to save space -- a weird argument in this information age, when all the LASD‘s records since 1850 might fit on two DVD ROMs. Bobb also strongly criticized the increasing number of sexual-discrimination actions within the department.

The special counsel may owe its seven-year success to its method -- low-key recommendations and negotiations. The counsel’s objective is allegedly more to steer the department away from potential problems than to punish the problematic.

”The objective is to use the information for better management,“ Bobb says. The point, he stresses, isn‘t to chastise individual officers, but to point out areas in which training and procedures can be made to avoid trouble and litigation. Bobb notes his recommendations aren’t always accepted -- for instance, he hasn‘t been able so far to persuade the sheriff to keep records of unsubstantiated complaints. But it’s obvious from the results that he‘s a tough negotiator who wins more than he loses.

Bobb and staff did identify 100 possible ”problem“ deputies in the early 1990s -- but he stresses that a number of those singled out proved to be decent officers, while others ended up in ”corrective programs . . . to salvage [their] careers. It became their captains’ job to get them up to speed,“ Bobb recalls. A similar list of LAPD officers emerged from the Christopher Commission.

Bobb claims that he and the sheriff are usually on the same page when it comes to departmental direction. As a departmental chief, Sheriff Baca was an early Bobb ally and continues to support Bobb on most issues. Speaking of the command staff as a whole, Bobb says, ”We‘ve been able to establish comfortable mutual relationships.“

How did this happen? Unlike the mayor, Police Commission and council, who can vote out the police chief, the county supervisors have no direct control over the sheriff, who is elected at large (he’s the highest-salaried elected official in the nation). So how did they persuade someone as ornery as the late Sheriff Sherman Block to cooperate? Perhaps because the special counsel has the undivided backing of the supervisors -- who control the sheriff‘s purse strings. And who all remember what undertrained and ill-regulated deputies once cost the county.

There’s no county equivalent of the Police Commission. Which makes you wonder. In the county, Bobb says, ”There isn‘t the chafing and abrasion“ you get with the 70-plus-year-old mayor-appointed commission process. In 10 years, we’ve seen that commission packed with pro-police-chief members and, at least under Tom Bradley, with anti-chief members. We‘ve acquired an inspector general, but, as initial I.G. Kathy Mader’s career suggests, she‘s at the mercy of both the chief of police and the politically ionized commission.

Not to mention the mayor and his law-enforcement deputy and the chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee. With all this conflicting oversight tripping over itself, is it any wonder that the LAPD has largely played its own hand, before and since the Christopher Commission? Proving that, just as the confrontational approach doesn‘t work on disturbed street people, the traditional city political tangle of elected and appointed officials doesn’t work on the LAPD.

But this year, the voters passed a charter that strengthens the I.G. job. Let‘s hope that whoever is in charge takes Bobb’s operation as a model.