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Thursday, Oct. 05, 2000

When considering the police scandal plaguing Los Angeles, it is natural to focus, as most accounts have, on the chilling details of rogue cops from the city's Rampart Division framing suspects, lying in court, stealing and selling dope, even shooting innocent civilians. Despite the repetition, it often seems that the horrifying nature and dire consequences of these acts is under-appreciated.

We still don't know how many innocent people were jailed (and perhaps remain in jail) because of the treachery of L.A. cops. We still don't know how many guilty persons will now go free because skeptical juries no longer trust the testimony of police officers. We still don't know how many city programs will wither as the city - inevitably - pays huge civil judgments to compensate victims for the beatings, shootings, and false imprisonments.

Still, the scandal-related issue with the greatest long-term importance has thus far received comparatively little attention. The current crisis in L.A. is a stark example of a failed effort at police reform and raises the stubborn question of whether Los Angeles has the political and moral will to achieve responsible governance of its police department.

The History Of Police Reform in Los Angeles

The notion of cleaning up the L.A.P.D. is nothing new. In 1991, in the wake of the Rodney King beating, a blue-ribbon commission headed by Los Angeles' leading statesman, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, dissected the L.A.P.D and indicted the department for a systematic failure to curb police abuses. In light of its findings, the Christopher Commission suggested a wide-ranging overhaul of the department.

The reforms the Commission suggested included the creation of a system for identifying and tracking problem officers, as well as reforms aimed at breaking down the "us versus them" mentality that characterized the department's relationship with its community. Perhaps most important, the Commission sought to strengthen civilian oversight by proposing that a full-time Inspector General be appointed, under the civilian Police Commission that theoretically oversees the department, to audit the L.A.P.D.'s performance.

After the Christopher Commission report, the city congratulated itself for having cleaned up the police department. And until the eruption of the current scandal, the department encouraged that complacency. Repeatedly, Chief Bernard Parks assured the public and the Police Commission that the police department was aggressively implementing the Christopher Commission proposals.

That turns out to have been bunk. All along, the police department was dragging its feet on the computer tracking of "bad apple" officers - thus depriving the city of a mechanism for identifying and rooting out the kind of cops-turned-criminals who flourished in the Rampart Division. The department also resisted the appointment of an Inspector General and, after losing this fight, has stonewalled the IG at every turn. In theory, the IG is supposed to have access to all information relevant to evaluating the department's handling of such critical matters as civilian complaints, officer-involved shootings, and internal discipline. In practice, however, the Chief either ignores his watchdog or kicks sand in its face.

In general, the department's position, embodied by the handsome and imposing Chief Parks, is that no one has the competence to investigate and reform the department except the department itself. Not long ago, Chief Parks even refused to cooperate with the District Attorney's criminal investigation of corrupt officers in the department.

The Failure of the L.A.P.D.'s Attempts At Self-Policing, and The Mayor's Role

This resistance to outside review is hard to justify, given recent history. During the height of criminality at the Rampart Division, then-Deputy Chief Parks was responsible for overseeing the Internal Affairs Bureau - whose province it was to catch such wrongdoing. And every day new information appears suggesting that Parks & Co. had plenty of warning signs that the Rampart Division was running off the rails.

More recent events do nothing to build confidence in the idea of departmental self-policing. When the Rampart scandal broke, Parks convened a much-ballyhooed "Board of Inquiry" to examine the causes and cures of L.A.P.D.'s internal corruption. After months of intensive effort, the Board of Inquiry issued a report that, astonishingly, attributed the lying, stealing, beatings, and shootings not to serious problems in the department's culture or to a comprehensive breakdown of administration - but rather to a creeping "mediocrity" and the specific failure of a few relatively low-ranking officers.

An outsider might well ask, How can a police department, and in particular its chief, get away with such shenanigans? In large part, the answer lies at the door of the Mayor, Richard Riordan, who appointed Parks; sees his legacy as intertwined with Parks' fate; and protects him to the hilt. Although oversight of the department officially lies with the Police Commission, Riordan appoints the five part-time Commissioners - and they have thus far proved unwilling to suffer the political consequences of bucking their patron. Also, in an election year, many other city officials have shied away from taking a strong stand on such a potentially volatile issue.

Why A Fundamental Shift In Police Oversight Is Needed

In recent weeks, Parks and Riordan have reluctantly agreed to accept some federal oversight of the department, in order to avoid being sued by the Department of Justice. In addition, a group of prominent attorneys and civic leaders who have been studying the department at the request of the Police Commission will soon be issuing their report. It is expected to recommend some sweeping reforms.

But ultimately the fate of police reform and the integrity of the system rests with the people of Los Angeles, who have thus far been remarkably quiescent as the integrity of their police force has shattered before their eyes. Real reform means a new ballot initiative, taking oversight of the department away from part-time mayoral appointees and putting it in the hands of full time public servants. Part-timers, especially part-timers beholden to the mayor, will never be able to sustain over the long haul a program to change the culture of a department with deep systemic flaws. Indeed, without some fundamental shift in the oversight of the department, the latest reform effort will almost surely face the same fate as did the Christopher Commission - and the city, not too far down the road, will have yet another terrible scandal on its hands.

Edward Lazarus, a former federal prosecutor, is the legal correspondent for Talk Magazine and the author of Closed Chambers: The Rise, Fall, and Future of the Modern Supreme Court.

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