LAPD Chief William Bratton barreled into office last fall and immediately drove reformers and critics to the brink of apoplexy with his abrasive time-to-get-tough rhetoric and his vows to wage ruthless war on gangs.
But now, less than a year after he took over, Bratton — along with a beefed-up Police Commission, a supportive City Council and a mayor engaged on police matters — is challenging some sacred assumptions in ways undreamed of in the autocratic days of Daryl Gates and Bernard Parks. After more than a decade of frustrating false starts and wrong turns, the long-awaited reform of the Los Angeles Police Department seems to be gaining traction. Even the notoriously recalcitrant rank-and file union, the Police Protective League, appears willing to help.
Some demands for reform, once the exclusive territory of the ACLU, have now become official policy. Bratton — in a sea change from Parks — supports the Police Commission’s own bold appointment of an independent, 10-member panel of attorneys to reopen and for once get to the core of the Rampart scandal. What distinguishes the panel is not only its subpoena power but its membership. Civil-rights attorney Connie Rice, a fiery activist and department critic, chairs the panel.
The most promising twist in the new investigation is the Police Protective League’s stated intention to cooperate. “They’re now putting together a group to work with me,” Rice said. “We’re talking about changing policy, and looking at these cops as experts.”
Under Bratton and outgoing Police Commission President Rick Caruso, the Senior Lead Officer program so essential to positive police-community relations, has been reinstated. Those sometimes woolly and hairy LAPD car chases have been limited. The internal disciplinary system that under Chief Parks was viewed by average cops as arbitrary and draconian is now being reformed.
Bratton’s also attempting a historic cleanup of the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Division — now called the Professional Standards Bureau — which for decades has specialized in covering up police abuse. Bratton broke precedent when he recently named an outsider, Michael Berkow, as head of the new bureau. An attorney and former law clerk to a federal judge, Berkow’s highly respected for his extensive experience working in anti-corruption police training programs in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. Placing Internal Affairs in the hands of someone from outside the system is crucial.
Bratton also set precedent recently when he publicly characterized as disastrous an LAPD Board of Rights panel that imposed no discipline on officer Edward Larrigan for the fatal 1999 shooting of Margaret Mitchell, the homeless, mentally ill bag lady. The panel disregarded a Police Commission ruling that Mitchell’s shooting had been out of policy. (The City Council approved paying nearly $1 million in damages to Mitchell’s family).
Bratton lamented that he has far less power to discipline than most big city chiefs. “If officers are lying, I want to fire them, not give them 120-day suspensions.”
Bratton’s response was an important sign that there’s finally an LAPD chief serious about solving the problem of abusive cops. But his solution needs to be refined. Certainly the current system of cops judging cops has to be replaced. But not much good has ever come out of giving LAPD chiefs more power.
Bratton’s also on the wrong side in another critical reform debate over the proper role of the LAPD’s Inspector General.
The city’s first two I.G.s both left office extremely frustrated that their attempts to monitor the department had been thwarted by Chief Parks and a Police Commission dominated by him. The same thing may be happening again. Bratton has characterized Jeff Eglash as a “‘runaway I.G.’ It’s not the role of the I.G. to release independent reports,” he told the Weekly. “The I.G. reports to the commission only — not to the media.”
Westside City Councilman Jack Weiss is asking that the I.G. be permitted to report directly to the council — which must approve all large police-brutality settlements.
Last month, the Police Commission reluctantly allowed the I.G. to do so, four times a year. Weiss is now proposing a long overdue step toward serious outside monitoring of the department — an I.G.’s office similar to the Sheriff’s Office of Independent Review, which can independently investigate any scandal from its very beginning, instead of having to wait until the department’s investigation is completed, as is the case with the I.G. Weiss is expected to have strong support in pushing for a more independent I.G. from council members Cindy Miscikowski, Eric Garcetti, Martin Ludlow and Antonio Villaraigosa.
Other areas of reform are even more problematic. The city’s chief legislative analyst warned this spring that the department is moving so slowly on reforms that it’s in serious danger of violating the federal consent decree. So while Bratton’s tenure has finally opened the door to the possibility of reform, its overall future remains uncertain.