HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Los Angeles:

Progress Since the Christopher Commission
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The Christopher Commission report concluded that, if "faithfully implemented," the report's scores of recommendations would help to avoid a repetition of the abhorrent King incident and others like it. One of the most important recommendations, however, took five long years to implement. This wasthe appointment of an inspector general to review the operations of the Internal Affairs Division: the recommendation was made in July 1991, and the inspector general was hired in July 1996.24 Along with other problems of implementation, this delay undermined many observers' faith in city and police officials' commitment to the Christopher Commission report.

In the years since the Christopher Commission report, many police abuse monitors in Los Angeles have expressed concern in letters and reports about the lack of progress on the Christopher Commission recommendations.25 In May 1996, the special counsel to the Los Angeles Police Commission published a report finding that progress, in some areas, toward reforms in the LAPD had been "halting."26 Further, the report stated,

    [G]iven the five years that have elapsed since the Christopher Report was published, we conclude that the department has not undergone reform to the extent that was possible or required. For the most part, what reform there has been has been more attributable to the acts of dedicated individuals than a coordinated plan or effort....27

The report noted progress, particularly in the area of community policing. But it was critical of slow progress in implementing an "at-risk" program. "We have seen no evidence of a meaningful, institutionalized effort by the Department to do work history reviews for officers generating an unusually high number of uses of force or force-related complaints."28 Similarly, they found that "the LAPD continues to lack a comprehensive system to analyze and manage use of force," despite therecommendation to this effect by the Christopher Commission.29 The commission concluded, "the absence of such proactive management (with a few isolated exceptions) five years after the Christopher Report is a matter of substantial concern."30

The commission found that citizen complaints were down, and that internal investigations of citizen complaints were more thorough and adjudications appeared more fair than was the case when the Christopher Commission issued its report.31 Still, the unwritten rule that a police officer's statement is given greater weight than a complainant's (or a "tie goes to the officer") remained problematic. Furthermore, department investigators' definition of "independent witnesses" remained overly narrow, meaning that witness accounts by individuals who knew the alleged victim were disregarded by investigators. The commission also noted that discipline for code of silence-related misconduct was too rare.32

The commission examined 130 use of force or ethnic bias cases and found that punishment of excessive force "remains low."33 The report also noted that there was no "disciplinary matrix" (a standardized scale of punishments) despite much discussion about it.34 The commission criticized the use of "Miscellaneous Memos," which were used instead of a personnel complaint forms (1.81s) in cases where complaints appear to be baseless and not worthy of a formal investigation. The LAPD justified the use of miscellaneous memos by stating that there should be a category for disposing of allegations that, on their face, disclose no apparent misconduct. The commission found that miscellaneous memos were, in fact, being used in cases where possible misconduct or violation of policy did exist, and that they should have been treated as formal complaints of police abuse. The use ofmiscellaneous memos made the total count of complaints provided by the department incorrect; the commission concluded that, "for all practical purposes, it is as if the allegations were never made and an investigation never occurred."35

Finally, the commission described the status of the forty-four "problem officers" identified in the Christopher Commission report. The commission described the limitations on the department on administering discipline, or firing, the named officers who had already had the complaints against them investigated and adjudicated. The report noted that the department has begun a manual review of personnel complaints and was to provide quarterly reports to managers when an officer under their command has been the subject of three or more complaints.36 The commission warned, however, that while sophisticated databases will simplify the task, even they will not be useful if "top management does not hold its managers and supervisors strictly accountable for the actions of subordinate personnel."37 When the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights later held hearings in Los Angeles, in September 1996, Mayor Richard Riordan appeared to agree with this conclusion, and said he believed there had been a great deal of progress, but that more needed to be done to hold supervisors accountable for the actions of their subordinates.38

Nearly six years after the Christopher Commission report recommended it, the Police Commission approved a set of discipline guidelines on June 24, 1997.39 Although not binding, the guidelines would apply the most severe punishments to officers who engage in dishonesty, excessive use of force, abuse of a firearm, or discourteous behavior toward members of the public or the police force, including derogatory, ethnic or racial or sexist remarks or behavior. Prior to the approval of the guidelines, supervisors were allowed broad discretion in the punishments meted out. The guidelines were created by a disciplinary systems task force that included police personnel and members of the public. One of the task force members warned that, "[N]o discipline guide on paper is worth anything unless it is implemented in an intelligent and appropriate way," yet there was widespread agreement that theexistence of a disciplinary matrix that highlighted these types of offenses was a significant, and essential, reform development.40

After Chief Parks took office in 1997, however, he drafted his own disciplinary guidelines after deciding that the guidelines created by the task force, and approved by the interim chief and Police Commission, were unacceptable.41 At the time of this writing it was not clear how his guidelines differed from those created by the task force. And although he was within his powers to draft the new guidelines without input from others, his apparent disregard for the work of members of the task force and the Police Commission sent a negative signal.42 The Police Commissioners, who reportedly favor the task force's disciplinary guidelines, planned to discuss the chief's new rules but the Commissioners' approval is not required.43

24 The Inspector General's office existed prior to the appointment of the inspector general, but its activities were limited.

25 Including the ACLU of Southern California, Police Watch, and the Coalition Against Police Abuse.

26 Los Angeles Police Commission, "In the course of change: The Los Angeles Police Department five years after the Christopher Commission," May 30, 1996. The special counsel included Mark Epstein and Merrick Bobb; Bobb had monitored the L.A. Sheriff Department's progress following the 1992 Kolts Report describing serious abuses and management problems.

27 Police Commission report, p. vi.

28 Ibid., p. 16.

29 Ibid., p. 2. The special counsel found that officers neither increased nor decreased their use of force as a percentage of arrests significantly following the King incident. p. 6

30 Ibid., p. 6.

31 Ibid., p. 33.

32 Ibid., p. 34. The commission also noted poor data collection, resulting in three separate sets of complaints statistics provided to investigators that could not always be reconciled.

33 Ibid., p. 44.

34 Ibid., p. 45

35 Ibid., pp.47-48.

36 Ibid., p. 17.

37 Ibid., p. 17.

38 Jim Newton and Abigail Goldman, "Williams, union chief clash before panel," Los Angeles Times, September 13, 1996.

39 Matt Lait, "LAPD board adopts new discipline rules,"Los Angeles Times, June 25, 1997.

40 Ibid.

41 Telephone inquiry, Cliff Weiss, acting executive director, Los Angeles Police Commission, May 12, 1998.

42 Matt Lait, "LAPD watchdog commission napping, critics contend," Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1998.

43 Telephone inquiry, Cliff Weiss, acting executive director, Los Angeles Police Commission, May 12, 1998.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch