Last week, the LAPD‘s rank-and-file union made a proposal that seemed to fly in the face of the traditional mandate of big-city police unions to excoriate their critics, punish their enemies and serve as the bedrock foundation of the blue wall of silence. Getting nowhere with its dual tactics of vilifying officer-turned-informant Rafael Perez as a stool pigeon and blaming the LAPD brass for everything, the Police Protective League asked the Los Angeles Police Commission to make it easier for clean cops to provide information on dirty cops.
Specifically, the union asked the commission to guarantee confidentiality to officers who know of wrongdoing by their fellow cops and want to tell the LAPD’s inspector general about it. Officers informing on other officers has almost glaringly not been taking place, of course, primarily because of the code of silence, and because most cops don‘t want to get involved in the half-dozen or so investigations swirling around the Rampart scandal. But another significant reason has been a longtime LAPD disciplinary policy that requires employees to immediately report any ”possible misconduct“ by another officer to a supervisor.
Such reporting, as we know from the Christopher Commission report and the blatant brutality committed in the Rampart Division, has rarely happened. Nevertheless, the failure to do so is grounds for disciplinary action within the LAPD. So, in addition to officer confidentiality, the league has asked the commission to temporarily suspend that policy so that officers won’t have to fear being punished for having failed to provide the information earlier. As things stand, that fear is well-justified. In a 1997 report written by then–LAPD Inspector General Katherine Mader on use-of-force by officers, for example, Mader detailed six cases of cops informing on their colleagues. Incredibly, half the cops who blew the whistle were themselves later charged with misconduct for not reporting their allegations in a timely manner. Then, in an even more preposterous turn of events, several of the original cases were judged to be ”unfounded,“ but those who reported the incidents were found guilty of failing to do so quickly enough.
Clearly, something is at stake here other than just a retooling of the league‘s image, although retooling the current perception of the league is very much on the mind of its president, Ted Hunt.
”We need to unequivocally assure the public that if there is a blue wall of silence, we’re willing to have cops come forward,“ Hunt said. ”And if it‘s a problem for them now because they didn’t report it at the time, let‘s now put a moratorium on it, and then there’ll be no excuses. Anybody who sees anything should now be able to report it, without any obstacles.“
The league‘s proposal came in response to Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s offer of confidentiality to officers who brought him information. But from the league‘s point of view, there are problems with the D.A.’s offer. Garcetti could grant confidentiality to officers, for example, but if he then used the information, he‘d have to turn it over in discovery to the defense, allowing the officers’ names to get back to the department.
The league‘s request was also an effort to improve its public image. In a sign of both that effort and a seemingly genuine reasonableness on the part of the league’s top leadership, Hunt stood side by side with ACLU executive director Ramona Ripston at a joint news conference — an unimaginable scenario just a few years ago. (The league called for a review of Police Chief Parks‘ investigation into the Rampart scandal, while the ACLU called for an immediate, full-blown inquiry.)
”The essence of everything we’re doing is to once and for all get to the bottom of [the Rampart scandal] and resolve these issues so that they never happen again,“ Hunt said. ”But nobody should misinterpret this. We are absolutely going to stand by our officers 100 percent in court and through the departmental discipline system. We‘re not about to bend over in the back seat of a Ford, if you know what I mean.
“But at the same time, if we’re going to stop having Rodney King, O.J. Simpson and Rafael Perez incidences, we have to get at the root of the problem. And we‘re not going to if we [and the department] tell everybody else, ’Screw you, we can handle it ourselves.‘ Those incidents have made us look really bad, and I’m sick and tired of the people I represent getting punished while the brass gets promoted.”
Thus, the league needs to appear reasonable to the public and to a civic leadership increasingly frustrated with the LAPD. And to do that, the league has to shed its bunker-mentality image and build political alliances so that it can be a player in the resolution of the Rampart scandal, as well as isolate the enemy in the person of Chief Parks.
Certainly Parks has been masterful in marginalizing the league and characterizing its leadership as a bunch of crybabies unwilling to accept the kind of no-nonsense, out-to-the-woodshed discipline needed to restore the LAPD to its mythical glory days. The league has been unable to counter Parks‘ tactic, or to imprint on the public mind the chief of police that they see: an imperious, uncompromising, capricious man who rules through fear and metes out uneven, disproportional discipline to low-ranking officers without regard for the lives and careers he’s wrecking.
Parks, of course, has also been busy trying to deflect blame for the scandal onto the D.A., onto former Chief Willie Williams, onto his “mediocre” middle management and onto rogue cops on the street. The lesson the league has been learning from all this, according to one well-placed union official, “is that a fuck-you confrontational strategy doesn‘t work. Everywhere we go, we hear about ’the blue wall, the code of silence.‘ It’s no use in denying it exists anymore. Nobody‘s going to believe it, and we don’t want to be on the wrong side of that issue any longer.”
Former LAPD Assistant Chief David Dotson commented that police union leaders are after more than a “political advantage” in taking these new positions. “They also absolutely do not trust the department‘s and Parks’” handling of the Rampart scandal, he said. They fear that Parks will serve up rank-and-file officers “as a sacrifice to show that he‘s doing something significant about the scandal. They feel, moreover, that while high-ranking officers are treated very gently, the department lands on lower-ranking people real hard for minor, off-duty conduct, and that then allows all sorts of [misconduct] to happen on the job.” The result has been a growing feeling in the league that more civilian oversight would only be an improvement over the current situation; it could lead to LAPD policies more widely accepted by the city’s citizens, policies that eventually would lessen the chance of its members‘ being sued or going to prison for actions such as the Rodney King beating. (Which many in the league — in a sign of just how wide the perceptual divide remains between citizen and cop in L.A. — still believe was “in policy” and therefore merited no punishment.)
The league’s moratorium proposal sounds good, but it‘s unlikely to amount to much. Ted Hunt himself acknowledges that few officers are likely to take advantage of it, and while Hunt maintains that the Police Commission can order such a temporary suspension, it appears unlikely that the commission does indeed have that authority.
Long before the current proposal, the former and current inspectors general, Katherine Mader and Jeff Eglash, jointly concluded that the person in that position cannot promise confidentiality because of a built-in conflict of interest. Under the city charter, the city attorney is charged with defending all of its employees and its branches of government against lawsuits. If, for example, an officer gives confidential information to the inspector general about an abusive partner, and that partner is later sued, the city attorney can demand the information to defend him. In addition, a second charter provision states that the disciplinary system of the LAPD is the sole purview of the chief of police.
So while the Protective League’s proposal is certainly a step in the right direction, it probably can‘t be enacted. The situation, however, could be fixed through state legislation granting the inspector general the right to bestow confidentiality. Such legislation was passed and given to Arthur Sinai, the inspector general for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The league certainly has the political clout to have an exemption for the LAPD carved out as well. Whether it does so or not will be the real test of the league’s sincerity on this issue.