UPDATE, May 17, 10:55 a.m.: Measure C has passed, with 57 percent of the vote.
Civilian oversight became a byword for greater police accountability in Los Angeles after the 1992 riots. That year, city voters approved a package of police reforms, including an amendment to the city charter allowing a civilian examiner to sit on the LAPD Board of Rights, the disciplinary panels that hear cases of serious police misconduct.
Prior to 1992, the Board of Rights was modeled after the court-martial process for military personnel. The three-member panels were staffed solely by sworn officers chosen at random from the ranks of captain and above. After the ’92 charter amendment passed, the city replaced one seat with a civilian chosen from a pool of pre-approved applicants.
At the time, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers, questioned the wisdom of placing the personnel matters of officers in the hands of a civilian who didn't know the system.
“It is not reform in a way that benefits the public at all. It’s an erosion of the little police discipline that already exists.” —Melina Abdullah
Today, 25 years later, the police union has taken a different stance on the issue. It's pushing for a new charter amendment that would give accused officers the choice of having their cases heard by BOR panels staffed entirely by civilian examiners.
Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, says prior concerns about civilian interference on the BOR were unfounded. The union's current position is that officers accused of misconduct tend to get a fairer shake from civilian examiners than from command-level officers, who have a conflict of interest, he says.
“There's always been the potential for the chief of police to put thumbs on the captains,” Lally says. “The person that's been picked as one of the civilian examiners is very fair. This is all about fairness.”
On May 16, voters in the municipal elections will decide on Measure C, co-authored by LAPPL. A yes vote on Measure C would allow a police officer accused of misconduct the additional option to have the case heard and decided by a panel of three civilians.
Opponents of Measure C — the most prominent of which include the ACLU of Southern California, Black Lives Matter and Community Coalition, and Los Angeles Community Action Network — say the charter amendment is not so much about fairness as it is to create better odds for an officer facing misconduct.
Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, says the reason for the union's shifting position on civilian oversight is spelled out in the findings of the Chief Legislative Analyst's report on Measure C: The civilians on the board are more lenient than the officers when it comes to disciplining or finding fault with officers accused of misconduct.
The section of the report to which Bibring is referring states:
During the period from 2011 to November 2016, civilian Hearing Examiners were consistently
more lenient than their sworn-officer counterparts. In the 39 Directed BOR cases where the Chief recommended termination but a BOR acquitted accused officers, the civilian member voted for acquittal in every case. During this period, 16 of the remaining 190 termination cases heard by BORs were decided by 2-to-1 margins. In each case, the Hearing Examiner voted for the more lenient option.
Civilian BOR members have also voted for reduced penalties in every case where a BOR found an officer guilty of misconduct, and have also consistently voted for lesser punishments or acquittals in Opted Boards dealing with demotions or suspensions.
Bibring attributes the leniency in part to the selection process for hiring civilian hearing examiners. He says it is overly restrictive and needs to be revamped to allow a more representative cross-section of the city.
“If people imagine civilian oversight to include communities directly affected by police violence, there’s a real chance that criteria excludes people from those communities,” Bibring says.
Civilian examiners are often retired judges, mediators or other professionals with backgrounds in administrative law or human resources, according to the LAO’s report. They are required to have at least seven years’ prior experience with arbitration, mediation or administrative hearings or comparable work.
Melina Abdullah, an activist and organizer for Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, says giving officers accused of serious misconduct the choice between appearing before a Board of Rights composed of two police officers and a civilian, or three civilians, is suspicious on its face. “I’m sure everyone in the world would like to choose who disciplines them,” Abdullah says.
“This is basically a deal cut with the police unions,” Abdullah adds. “It is not reform in a way that benefits the public at all. It’s an erosion of the little police discipline that already exists.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti is listed as a supporter of Measure C, and the mayor’s spokesman, Yusef Robb, says that Garcetti's support is based on a belief in the importance of increasing civilian oversight of the LAPD. “We believe that’s the direction the department should be headed in,” Robb says.
The argument in favor of Measure C in the city voter's guide is co-signed by City Councilmember Mitchell Englander and Police Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill, among others.
Lally of the LAPPL says Garcetti has been supportive of the union's request since he came to a delegates conference three years ago. “[Garcetti] thinks our discipline system is antiquated,” Lally says.