As they scramble to restore order and confidence in a department torn by the Rampart scandal, the five mayor-appointed members of the Los Angeles Police Commission have been hit this spring with widespread criticism, and sometimes abuse. They ”can‘t get no respect“ anywhere. They have weathered, with outward aplomb, the criticism in the streets — angry victims of LAPD abuse and adverse public-opinion polls. But now criticism from the suites — skeptical council members and Department of Justice (DOJ) accusations of lax management — has thwarted the commission’s ability to steer the Rampart-crisis investigation and shape its remedies.
As the number of critics increased, the commission responded by adding to its work force — the now 100-plus attorneys, experts and citizens it enlisted to assess problems and solutions. With the federal DOJ‘s civil rights agency joining the game, expansion and enlargement may prove inadequate survival strategies.
The DOJ’s agenda prioritizes certain reforms, notably tracking problem officers and changing shooting-investigation procedures. It‘s unclear how the commission’s plodding investigative schedule will mesh with the Justice Department‘s needs to conclude an agreement with the city.
On the City Council, where the commission’s support is shaky, there are now two contradictory pressures. Councilman Michael Feuer wants the commission to shift into overdrive to keep the city in the feds‘ good graces. Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and others say slow down. Ridley-Thomas, in fact, thinks the right gear for the commission’s panel is park — at least until the feds clarify their requirements and the panel develops a broader membership and a work style more open to public view.
Yet, even if all the critics could be silenced, a review of the last two months shows many of the commission‘s problems to be of its own making.
The first ordeal for the commissioners — well, some of them — was trekking around to unfamiliar neighborhoods this spring to hear local reactions to Chief Bernard Parks’ wide-ranging Board of Inquiry Report on what went wrong at Rampart and why. Their tour only got them yelled at, sworn at and told how useless they had been as overseers. Then an L.A. Times poll revealed that most Angelenos had no faith in their leadership either, three-quarters of them wanting an independent body created to handle the scandal.
On April 12, three days after the poll, the commission, capturing the right rhetoric, unveiled at a news conference what it called the Rampart Independent Review Panel, some two dozen topflight attorneys and expert consultants. Though weeks in preparation, the unveiling got a mixed reception. Barely an hour after the news conference, the commission‘s Asian Pacific Islander Police Advisory Council testified before the City Council regarding the need for an independent review of Rampart and a new commission to investigate the LAPD. The next day, the commission’s inspector general told a meeting of downtown lawyers that commissioners were often psychological captives of the LAPD command, subject to ”Stockholm syndrome,“ in which hostages adopt the views of their captors, and that he had to count votes every morning to assess whether the commission was behind him on police-reform decisions. Leaders of ethnic organizations blasted the panel‘s overwhelmingly white composition. Others pointed out the group’s lack of economic and occupational diversity, and reiterated their indictment of its limited scope and autonomy.
Of the seven ongoing investigations into the Rampart scandal, the commission‘s work could portend the greatest changes for the city’s policing practices. Yet its grip on the unfolding civic theater also appears the most tenuous, especially with the mushrooming federal role. It‘s true that the City Council, by a 9-6 majority, has twice affirmed its confidence that the commission can do the job, and none of the nine has publicly changed heart. But council aides say that, behind the scenes, support has eroded.
Whatever public-relations mileage the title ”Rampart Independent Review Panel“ may have been meant to provide, all four words in it are misleading — two of them understatement, two exaggeration.
The all-volunteer body of attorneys named at the April conference has a scope considerably larger than Rampart problems, and its charge is broader than ”review“ of Chief Parks’ inquiry and report. Only one of the eight research topics is Rampart restricted; the others apply citywide. After examining issues of discipline, training, police culture and the use of force, among other things, recommendations a are expected, said commission President Gerald Chaleff, that ”may lead to profound changes in the way the LAPD operates and in which it is managed.“
On the other hand, by no stretch of the imagination is the group independent — as, says the commission‘s own news release, it is ”working under the overall direction and guidance of“ a troika consisting of the commission’s executive director, Joseph Gunn; LAPD Inspector General Jeffrey Eglash; and Richard Drooyan, formerly deputy general counsel for the Christopher Commission. Nor do the attorneys and other consultants constitute a ”panel“ at all, as there is no provision in the work plan for them to decide anything as a group — or even meet together — at any point during their assignments. Each appointee has been assigned to one of eight ”working groups“ on such subjects as civilian oversight and ”risk management,“ which will submit eight separate reports periodically; these are then to be ”merged together“ by Gunn, Eglash and Drooyan for submission to the commission in the fall.
Drooyan suggests that ”people from each of the groups will be involved“ in the late-summer process of combining, editing and massaging the various task forces‘ work product. That this process is allotted almost as much time as the compilation of the eight subreports makes clearer that the shape and spin of the final product is, ultimately, in the hands of Drooyan and the two permanent staffers.
Ethnic-group advocates were not buying the new team’s composition — of the 26 members announced April 12, only three were Latinos, three African-Americans and none Asians. NAACP Los Angeles branch president Geraldine Washington threatened to set up a parallel investigative body if the group wasn‘t made more representative, and suggested that — since most police-abuse victims were minorities — minorities should be a majority on the inquiry board.
James Blancarte, president of MABA (Mexican-American Bar Association), said his group insists on an independent review because the close cooperation of the commission with the LAPD creates ”the possibility and the appearance of a conflict of interest.“ Tom Saenz of MALDEF (Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) said the new body was not independent enough and its membership, developed ”through a process not particularly public,“ failed to reflect the community. The three Latinos appointed are retired Superior Court Judge Enrique Romero, USC public-administration professor David Lopez-Lee, and Cynthia Telles, UCLA professor and wife of state Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg.
By April 25, the City Council joined the critics, passing by a 10-1 vote a call for the commission to expand the group for greater ethnic and occupational diversity. The resolution’s author, Councilwoman Rita Walters, said she was ”horrified“ at the preponderance of white males examining a problem affecting mainly people of color.
In the face of public reaction, the commission has been scurrying to find faces of darker hue, but its commitment to a broad color palette is belated. Almost two weeks before the first members were named, Councilman Ridley-Thomas responded to an Eglash request by offering five minority nominees — one Korean-American, three African-Americans and a Latino. As of May 2, a month after the memo was sent to Eglash, none had been contacted by the commission or its staff. One of the five, the Rev. Mark Whitlock of First AME Church, wondered, ”How can we, in the 21st century, have this 19th-century thinking that only males, especially Caucasian males, have the intelligence to deal with problems?“
The commission announced new appointments Tuesday, raising the proportion of minority members, largely at lower levels, but these afterthoughts haven‘t brought minority leaders into the commission’s corner. Sixty-nine percent of the 118 members are white, but there are now 13 Latinos, 16 African-Americans and eight Asian-Americans.
As well as being overwhelmingly white and male, the appointees are almost all attorneys. About half those named April 12 are alumni of the U.S. Attorney‘s Office (where Drooyan served as chief assistant). ”We’re not going to get real change with a bunch of prosecutors looking at it,“ said assistant public defender Eric Zucker. ”Why not put a [police-abuse plaintiff‘s lawyer] Steve Yagman or a [longtime civilian-review-board advocate] Michael Zinzun on the board?“ Several of the selected attorneys have some experience on the defense side of the bar, though largely in defending corporate clients in white-collar criminal matters. Eglash says he himself handled civil rights cases as an assistant U.S. attorney, and that two others have experience in the area. Councilman Joel Wachs urged that ”a variety of life experiences — from victims to policemen“ should be at the table. ”I wouldn’t want a panel of lawyers, no matter what color.“
Members of the Coalition for Police Accountability — which has insisted for months that only a fully independent panel can clean house and restore public confidence in the LAPD — took issue less with the body‘s membership than with its structure and limited powers. Putting Police Commission staff in the driver’s seat, they maintain, is dubious because of the commission‘s accountability to Mayor Riordan and its record of uncritically backing up Chief Parks. The commission’s propensity to protect the LAPD image would inhibit a no-stone-unturned inquiry, says coalition member Jim Lafferty of the National Lawyers Guild.
Gunn, Eglash and Drooyan, along with Commissioners Chaleff and Dean Hansell, met the evening of Friday, April 28, with about 20 members of Coalition for Police Accountability groups. The two-hour summit at ACLU headquarters, proposed by Gunn, failed to make many converts. Coalition members were wary of the number of retired LAPD officers named as commission investigators; Eglash believes their inside knowledge is an indispensable asset. Commission staffers turned aside suggestions that civil rights lawyers be added to the task force, arguing that this would undermine the report‘s credibility with the LAPD, said attorney Ken Miele of the Gay and Lesbian Action Alliance. Eglash insists that the need for an ”objective and impartial“ group precludes appointing anyone who has called for specific changes in LAPD policies. ”Nothing that was said Friday changes our view that we need a structure that will stay in place to see that its work — unlike the Christopher Commission reforms — is implemented,“ the ACLU’s Ramona Ripston declared the following Monday.
Some council members also see the scope as too constricted. ”Police don‘t operate in a vacuum,“ said Wachs. ”How could the D.A. and city attorney file hundreds of bad cases, and the system didn’t detect it for so long? We need something like the Mollen Commission in New York, with the power to grant immunity.“
Several of the Tuesday-night community-response hearings turned into angry and raucous venting sessions, including one at a Watts health center on March 28, where residents hammered home the message that police abuse was not confined to any single station. The Police Commission, though sponsoring the public hearings, was largely not there to hear it, leaving Warren Jackson, its sole African-American member, to listen alongside Executive Director Gunn and Inspector General Eglash. The absenteeism of the other four was perceived as turning their backs on the South-Central community. Two or three speakers responded by turning their backs to Commissioner Jackson, telling the simmering audience that it was up to them to end abuses.
Testimony at the center, only blocks away from the flash point of 1965‘s Watts Riots, was almost all critical of LAPD practices and at times suggested that ”only the people in the streets“ could bring abuses to a stop. Abdullah Muhammad, a parent and activist, said the police ”declared war on our community and our children, and we can’t tolerate that anymore. People are going to have to realize that we have to make the changes.“
The litany of horror stories seemed indeed to come from a war zone. Some stories were old, such as the one about a cut requiring seven stitches allegedly inflicted by 77th Street officers in the 1960s. Willie Soloman said Rampart Station had a reputation for brutality when he lived there 55 years ago. Other accounts were as fresh as the previous month. Tracy Datson reported that her murdered brother‘s body was left outside by the police for 12 hours on March 7 while police threatened neighbors.
Not all witnesses told of personal atrocities; others addressed policy issues, questioning whether either the district attorney or the Police Commission itself could be thorough and objective. ”I represent clients from Watts to Van Nuys to Venice,“ said James Simmons of the National Association of Black Lawyers, ”and everywhere we see the same problems. The district attorney has a conflict of interest — he’s dependent on the LAPD. There needs to be an independent prosecutor.“
The angriest rhetoric got the loudest cheers, though many elderly listeners sat on their hands and looked worried. Onetime military policeman Charles Edwards said most officers were there to protect people, but coupled this defense with a demand that the department ”cut the abusive officers loose and let them get their own attorneys.“
A hearing three weeks later in the Rampart Station district, at an Echo Park church, was slightly less angry, but equally antagonistic to the commission‘s authority and its plan — as was the final hearing, held across from Hollenbeck Station in Boyle Heights. Both featured appearances from Brown Berets who shouted, ”Stop killing our people.“ Agustin Cebeda of Echo Park charged that three young Latinos had been needlessly killed by police in the past month alone.
Between these stormy sessions, the commission found smoother sailing at its meeting in Brentwood, where the worst grievance was recounted by a middle-aged woman who said her arrest for spraying a construction worker with a hose was unjustified; the spraying had been accidental. Two members of the West L.A. Community Police Advisory Board expressed concern for the morale of the 99 percent of the force that was honest, one decrying the ”forces of hate and anarchy“ that had the LAPD in their sights.
Whatever the merits of that viewpoint, there is no question that the Police Commission and its appointees are in the sights of a number of skeptics, and taking a lot of shots. If the commission hopes to keep calling the shots on the expanding scandal, it clearly has some fast footwork — and some serious rethinking — to do.