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MORE ACTION, LESS TALK FOR REAL LAPD FIX.

Byline: EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON

THE instant Los Angeles city officials heard a loud roar from some in the black community after the LAPD Board of Rights absolved Officer Steven Garcia of any wrongdoing in the 2005 shooting death of black teen Devin Brown, they jumped over each other to express indignation and demand reform. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the City Council, the Police Commission, and Los Angeles Police Department Chief William Bratton pounded the Board of Rights for the veil of secrecy in its proceedings.

This is yet another example of the crass, cover-your-backside game that city officials routinely engage in whenever the seemingly regular-as- clockwork LAPD flap happens.

The city's leaders know that secrecy -- like the board's picking-and- choosing of evidence it gives the most weight to -- has been the rule rather than the exception in board findings well before the California Supreme Court ruled that officers' records could be kept private.

Villaraigosa and the City Council had ample time and opportunity to appeal that overly cautious interpretation. And that's all it was -- an interpretation City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo issued last August that police-misconduct discipline hearings should be closed. The court ruling Delgadillo cited did not explicitly say that the Board of Rights could not publicly disclose rulings in these cases, let alone how it arrived at its decision.

Had City Hall challenged that interpretation, there would be transparency in this case. Although critics would still have lambasted the board for its decision in the Brown case, the absence of the secrecy issue would have quickly muted the furor.

But that didn't happen. The Police Commission quickly caved in, upholding Delgadillo's expansive interpretation, and there was barely a peep of protest from City Hall.

That really shouldn't surprise. The mix of inaction and then rage after a public outcry over an LAPD misstep has been all too typical of the way city officials have approached police reform over the years.

It goes like this: A furor brews over, say, a Rodney King beating, the Rampart scandal, or a videotaped roughing-up of a suspect. The media blows it up, and city officials saber-rattle the department and vow to make changes.

The other fallback is to blame the problems on the chief. In this case, Bratton took the heat for the board flap. But that's a cop-out, too. Under the terms of the city charter, the chief has the power to discipline officers for wrongdoing, but the Officer Board of Rights can overturn any punishment the chief metes out.

Even if Bratton had decided to punish Garcia -- and he didn't -- the board still had the final say in the matter.

Whether the mayor, City Council and the Police Commission choose silence, or tinker around with a motion on discipline, or dump the problems on the chief, they still evade their responsibility to take forceful action. In years past, they have been more than content to take a see-no- evil, hear-no-evil stance on the allegations of police misconduct and leave it to the LAPD to investigate itself.

This doctrinaire belief that the department can and will clean its own house has proven to be wishful thinking. It prevented city officials from fully backing the Police Commission and the inspector general and providing the resources they needed to conduct their own investigations of use- of-force violations, citizen complaints and officer-discipline procedures -- and requiring that all policy changes be fully disclosed.

That change would be far easier to achieve and more practical than Villaraigosa and city officials' face-saving call to change state law to require public hearings. That's a time-consuming, tedious process with absolutely no guarantee that state lawmakers would go along with the change.

This is a needless effort, designed to protect the city's politicians, not improve its policing.

The Garcia ruling has momentarily derailed the good-faith efforts that Bratton, the Police Commission and even the Police Protective League have made to sell a skeptical African-American community on the notion that the LAPD will discipline officers that use excessive force, and make full public disclosure of their actions. Yet blaming Bratton and the department for their latest stumble won't get the ongoing effort to make the discipline process fair and open back on track.

That will take action, not rhetoric. City officials should remember that.
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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 21, 2007
Words:711
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