Last week‘s exhaustive two-day debate over the LAPD consent decree forced the City Council to confront novel policing issues. But as council members struggled doggedly through the Department of Justice’s 182-paragraph prescription for police reform, they suddenly found themselves back on very familiar turf — the oft-visited issue of senior lead officers and their role in community policing.

Restoring the senior-lead-officer program — under which nine or 10 officers per station were assigned to liaison functions such as meeting with Neighborhood Watch and business and civic groups — has been a bone of contention between Chief Bernard Parks and the council since Parks reassigned its 168 lead officers to patrol duties. Council offices, particularly in the San Fernando Valley, were inundated with letters and e-mail. Some complainants cited tangible losses: ”The SLO cleaned up drug dealers. Now that he is gone the drug dealers are back.“ Others mourned the loss of a relationship: ”If you take the SLOs away even more, we will have absolutely no connection or hope,“ a block captain e-mailed.

On this issue, the officers‘ union, the Police Protective League, finds itself on exactly the same page as the department’s critics. ”It creates a face behind the badge,“ Sergeant Dennis Zine, a PPL director, told the Weekly. ”When you have a program that‘s so well-received, why it’s not retained is beyond our comprehension.“

Parks has steadily maintained that the reshuffle meant more community policing — that all officers would now be involved in community activities and these veterans could pass along their skills as trainers. The chief‘s fallback proposal to soothe complaints by issuing cell phones to the former SLOs is unworkable. Said Zine: ”You can’t solve community problems on cell phones while you are training officers and doing all the documentation that involves. There are limits to juggling time.“

Nor was the council buying Parks‘ less-is-more rationale. ”The chief was right that community policing shouldn’t be embodied in just one officer,“ said Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski in an interview, ”but he was wrong to take away the only visible viable outreach to create something new.“ And nothing visible has replaced them.

The council, nudged by indignant members of Neighborhood Watch and homeowner groups, has strongly pressed Parks for a reversal of his decision, most recently in mid-June, when it voted 10-1 to urge the Police Commission to instruct Parks to reinstate the SLOs. (Only the commission, City Attorney James Hahn had told the council, was empowered to give directives on personnel-deployment issues.) On June 13, Police Commission President Gerald Chaleff wrote Parks, asking the chief 11 questions to assess the consequences of the change and the effectiveness of his no-SLO community-policing strategy — for example, ”How much time do watch commanders and basic car personnel spend in problem solving and community-policing efforts?“ Three months later, Parks‘ answers to these queries have just been returned, but only Police Commission staffers analyzing them know their content.

The SLO controversy slipped back into the council chamber when the Police Protective League unveiled the report it commissioned from USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky to review the report of Parks’ own Board of Inquiry on the Rampart scandal. A central thesis of Chemerinsky‘s report is that the aggressive paramilitary police culture that produced the Rampart scandal and the Rodney King beating needs to be supplanted by a quite different philosophy — one ”of openness, problem solving and community engagement.“ While Chemerinsky doesn’t believe that the SLO program in itself does much toward changing police culture, he endorses it as an important element in connecting the LAPD with the communities it serves — a ”tangible link“ that assigns someone ”the duty of building and caring for those bridges.“ His other community-policing proposals — quarterly community meetings, requiring high-level supervisors to spend time in the field, incorporating crime prevention and other community activities in training and in officer evaluation and promotion — were quickly approved by the council last week as added ingredients in the consent decree.

But when Councilman Joel Wachs moved to add the reinstatement of SLOs to the decree recipe — a concrete measure that would have overruled Parks‘ stance — the council hastily backed away from the fervent enthusiasm it had expressed in June. Council Member Laura Chick, former chair of the Public Safety Committee, complained that ”we have been ignored and stonewalled“ for over a year but advised colleagues not to ”vent our frustration“ by putting it in the decree. All the Westside council members agreed with her patient stance despite indications from Deputy Chief Martin Pomeroy that Parks was still unmoved.

”It’s been nine years since the Christopher Commission recommended community policing. If you believe in it, you can guarantee it now — because people won‘t be able to not do it,“ Wachs pleaded. He made a convert out of Valley colleague Hal Bernson, but the measure still went down on a 5-8 vote. ”If there was ever a discussion that showed the need for a consent decree, it’s this one,“ said Jackie Goldberg, one of the five. ”No one likes to tell the chief we disagree with his ideas on how to do things — [we can only] request that the commission bring it forward, and if the commission doesn‘t agree, we can’t do anything.“

Just before the vote, Chaleff announced that the matter was on the commission agenda for September 26, which gave reasonable cover for those shying away from a showdown. ”This is no repudiation“ of our position, insisted Ruth Galanter, who chaired the council session. But within 48 hours, Chaleff rescheduled the discussion for the commission‘s first October meeting.

Public Safety Committee chair Cindy Miscikowski promises to be at the Police Commission session with a strong statement. ”I believe — and, more than believe, hope — that the commission will give the direction that the council and the public want,“ she said in an interview. And if her hopes are, as in the past, disappointed? ”If the commission will not or cannot, then we go through the details of the Chemerinsky and independent-commission reports; we may have to look at the whole civilian-oversight structure.“ The implied threat — to escalate the issue into curtailing commission powers or bringing commission appointments back under the council’s umbrella — is unlikely to leave anyone quaking, because such changes would require mounting a campaign for charter change.

Not all police reformers are excited about the SLO program. South Los Angeles Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was not present for the June vote but suggested then that reinstating it before a broader community strategy is developed puts the cart before the horse. To civil rights attorney Connie Rice, longtime LAPD critic and collaborator on the Chemerinsky report, the senior-lead-officer debate misses the point. SLOs, she said, are ”just placeholders for what should really be happening — but it‘s the one thing [the LAPD] had been willing to do as window-dressing.“ Rice, who also represents rank-and-file officers in discipline cases against the department, said many of them recognize the need for new policing priorities. Community policing, said Rice, can only evolve through a process that both goes into the community to elicit residents’ visions and priorities and also taps into the street savvy of seasoned beat cops.

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