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Sep 2008
Thin Blue Line Wrapped in Red Tape at LAPD

Bureaucracy and politics come between the Los Angeles police and their work.

By Jack Dunphy

Police work is often a stressful endeavor, but not for the reasons you might think. Yes, there is the risk of being shot, stabbed, or clubbed in the head, but most cops will tell you that the threat to life and limb is not, in fact, the most stressful aspect of working the streets. Rather, what really gets the bile flowing in a cop's gut is the nonsense he must routinely endure, nonsense that rains down upon him in torrents from incompetent superiors and craven politicians. Sometimes adding to the frustration are media types who, either out of ignorance or bias, present an inaccurate picture of law enforcement to their audiences. Here in Los Angeles, recent events have produced some vivid examples of this, sending many cops to their medicine cabinets in search of relief. To wit:

  • Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles police commission continued on its quixotic mission to stem "racial profiling" in the LAPD, this despite the absence of even a shred of evidence that such profiling occurs.
  • Later that week, even as the police commissioners busied themselves in the implementation of their vision of a bias-free utopia, the decision was made elsewhere in the LAPD to have some officers assigned to narcotics, vice, and gang assignments work during the day, thus sparing the city the expense of overtime payments to those officers when they attend court during their off-duty hours. The fact that the crimes those officers are supposed to investigate and curtail occur primarily at night was insufficient to deter this decision.
  • Capping the week was a ruling from a federal judge who lifted the restraining order that had blocked implementation of a remaining provision in the consent decree under which the LAPD has operated since 2001. The LAPD is now free to impose financial disclosure requirements on officers working gang and narcotics squads. The judge made his ruling despite the near-universal acknowledgment that the required measures will be ineffectual in curbing corruption and will only discourage officers from seeking assignment to the affected units.
  • The final insult - in the current cycle, at least; more will surely follow - came the following Monday with an article in the Los Angeles Daily News that completely mischaracterized changes being made to the LAPD's disciplinary system, changes designed to make the system more equitable to police officers and less burdensome to an already unwieldy bureaucracy.
  • LAPD officers take to the streets today weighted under the burden of all this officially sanctioned lunacy, compared to which the possibility of a mere gunfight or conk on the noggin is like a day at the beach. We'll work backward through the list.

    The Daily News article described changes being made to a disciplinary system widely regarded within the LAPD as capricious and inflexible. Though much improved since 2002, when Bernard Parks was ousted as chief of the LAPD in favor of William Bratton, the system is still seen as an impediment to effective law enforcement, consuming resources and discouraging proactive police work. Deputy Chief Mark Perez, who heads the department's Professional Standards Bureau, describes the new system as one that puts "strategy over penalty." Sounds reasonable enough to me.

    But note how Daily News writer Rachel Uranga summarizes the changes. "The new process applies across the board," she writes, "from officers who accidentally wreck their squad cars to those who beat or shoot people." Thus the reader is left to conclude that the LAPD will deal no more harshly with an officer who unjustifiably shoots or beats someone than they would with one who gets into a traffic accident. And Uranga opens the article with a hoary reference to two of the LAPD's more notorious perceived misdeeds, the Rodney King beating of 1991 and the May Day melee at L.A.'s MacArthur Park in 2007 (discussed here, here, and here). For all the hysteria generated over the May Day incident, acts of genuine police brutality were almost nonexistent. And as for Rodney King, if the LAPD's critics need to reach back 17 years for their evidence, maybe things in the department aren't as bad as they would have people believe.

    And maybe, just maybe, the LAPD's federal consent decree really is the colossal waste of time and money I've been saying it is since it was foisted on us in 2001. A remaining provision in that consent decree is the requirement that officers assigned to gang and narcotics squads provide auditors with detailed financial information, the disclosure of which is intended to deter or uncover corruption such as occurred in the LAPD's "Rampart scandal" of the late 1990s. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the labor union that represents rank-and-file officers, has opposed the implementation of this provision on the grounds that it is overly invasive and unlikely to achieve its intended goal.

    Judge Gary Feess of the United States District Court for the Central District of California had granted the League a temporary restraining order blocking the measure, but then he lifted the restraining order with a ruling that not only insulted the League and its membership, but was also sneeringly condescending of Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley, who had offered a declaration in support of the League's position. The League, Judge Feess wrote in his opinion, had not "provid[ed] any foundation for [Cooley's] expertise in the field."

    The arrogance - even for a federal judge, an occupation well known for its towering egos - is stunning. With one sentence Judge Feess casually dismisses the opinions of a man who has spent 27 years as a prosecutor, and who, since his election in 2000, has sought to undo the damage wrought by his predecessor's incompetence in prosecuting cases arising from the Rampart scandal. Worse, perhaps, is the judge's uncritical acceptance of the opinion of Michael Cherkasky, the independent monitor appointed to oversee the implementation of the consent decree. Without any supporting evidence, Cherkasky describes the consent decree's financial disclosure provision as a "best practice," yet Judge Feess' opinion makes no reference to Cherkasky's obvious financial interest in seeing the consent decree continue: the city of Los Angeles pays Cherkasky's company nearly $200,000 a month - plus expenses - for its services.

    LAPD Chief William Bratton, whose ego may rival that of any federal judge, was just as dismissive of his officers' objections. He told the Los Angeles Times that the judge's decision "was not unexpected," and that the LAPD would implement the disclosure procedures immediately. He also brushed off the Protective League's warning of an exodus of officers from the affected units. "There is not going to be any wholesale transfers," Bratton told the Times. "The incentives to be in those units far outweigh any perceived" issues. He also said the department had seen no reduction in applications for those units.

    Chief Bratton is being disingenuous in making these claims. True, there won't be any wholesale transfers, but only because the measures to be imposed grant a two-year exemption to those officers already assigned to the affected units. This exemption is an obvious sign of recognition that most of these officers would sooner accept reassignment than provide the financial information being sought. It is also a tacit admission that the LAPD is confident that its gang and narcotics squads are already free of corruption; otherwise, why give them the two-year pass? And as for officers applying for these units, they have continued to do so only because the temporary restraining order was in effect. Things will be much different if the Protective League fails in its appeals and the financial disclosure measures are imposed.

    Things will also be different if the incentives to which Bratton referred no longer exist. Despite record revenues in 2007, the city of Los Angeles claims to be in a financial crisis, one result of which is an effort to reduce overtime in the LAPD. Chief Bratton rightly celebrates the reduction in crime seen in the city since his appointment in 2002, but as he surely realizes it was only accomplished by cops willing to go out and lock up the criminals, one byproduct of which is cops working overtime both in processing arrests and appearing in court during their off-duty hours. Officers assigned to gang, vice, and narcotics units are among the heaviest users of overtime as they most often work at night, when gang, vice, and drug activity is heaviest.

    But at one police station is South Central L.A., those officers were directed to work, albeit only briefly, during the daytime so as to reduce overtime costs. The order was rescinded after just two days, but the threat to reimpose it still hangs over the officers, with the implicit message being: only arrest as many crooks as you can while staying within the budget.

    But perhaps the most egregious thumb in the eye to L.A.'s cops was the civilian police commission's effort to expose instances of racial profiling in the LAPD. The fact that not a single allegation of racial profiling has been proved only reinforces their opinion that such practices are occurring. "We frankly have a continuing divide between where the department is and where members of the community are," said commissioner John Mack. "I am not suggesting every single person who thinks they were stopped because they were black is accurate. But it is a continuing perception in Los Angeles and this country - and that perception is a reality in the minds of many people."

    Heather Mac Donald wrote "The Myth of Racial Profiling" back in 2001, and since that time no one - no one! - has produced any evidence that such practices occur, in Los Angeles or anywhere else. If Mr. Mack is searching for reasons why blacks and Latinos are stopped by police in numbers he considers to be disproportionate, perhaps he should consider the following facts: There are 19 patrol areas in the LAPD, but more than 36 percent of the city's violent crimes reported so far this year occurred in the four areas that make up South and South Central Los Angeles, where the city's black and Latino concentrations are highest. These four areas make up only 16 percent of the city's total population. Mr. Mack may also be discomfited to learn - as he should be - that blacks, while comprising just 9.6 percent of the city's population, made up 34 percent of its homicide victims in 2007 and 36 percent of its known homicide suspects.

    It's simple: where crime is highest, so too will be the number of contacts with police officers. Perhaps the city's minorities might be better served if Mr. Mack and his colleagues concerned themselves more with the very real threat of violent crime in their communities and less with specious claims of racial profiling. And if they could cut loose with some more money for overtime, so much the better.



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