Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Although the Police Commission does serve as civilian oversight of the police department, there is no civilian review board dedicated to receiving and investigating individual citizen complaints against the police. That function is performed by the police department's division commanders and the Internal Affairs Group (IAG), with the Police Commission reviewing the department's findings when there are shootings.44 It was reported that the Police Commission has proposed reviewing all injury reports stemming from encounters between residents and the police.45 The Office of the Inspector General does receive initial complaints from the public, aswell as inquiries about the way the internal affairs division dealt with a complaint.46 The OIG passes initial complaints to the internal affairs group and assists complainants in finding out what became of complaints already filed with internal affairs.
Despite efforts by local advocates since the 1970s to create some sort civilian review mechanism in Los Angeles, the Christopher Commission did not recommend civilian review. Instead, it emphasized the role the civilian Police Commission could play.47 In addition, the commission called for the complaint, investigation and disciplinary system to be restructured fully, and operation of the system to be open to meaningful public review by a civilian authority.48 Finally, the commission called for the establishment of an "office of the inspector general within the police commission, with responsibility to audit and oversee the disciplinary process, participate in the adjudication and punishment of the most serious cases, and report to the police commission and its newly created chief of staff."49
More than five years later, Katherine Mader was named as the first inspector general, and the office's first report was published in January 1997.50 Mader is authorized to have complete and unrestricted access to all LAPD documents, to obtain direct and prompt access to any LAPD or Police Commission employee, and to subpoena witnesses and compel the production of any materials. The inspector general is not expected to do independent investigations, but instead is to audit the activities of the police department's investigators and leaders. There are fourteen OIG staffmembers, including two sworn employees.51
The purpose of the OIG's reports, to be published every six months, is to describe the police department's progress in implementing the Christopher Commission's and other reform recommendations. The January 1997 report echoedseveral of the concerns raised in the May 1996 Police Commission report (described above), and noted that the police department appeared to be underreporting the number of complaints received by only counting those that the department deemed worthy of investigation, rather than the total complaints received.52 Chief Williams and other city officials had touted the decrease in the number of complaints, from 717 in 1991 to 496 in 1995, as a sign of progress, so they protested the report's assessment that the LAPD had not been entirely forthcoming.53
The report also found that complaints filed against higher-ranking police personnel did not become formal complaints using form 1.81, but instead were processed using miscellaneous memos, which presuppose that the complaint is without merit. The report's analysis showed that complaints against higher-ranking personnel were less likely to be sustained than those against officers with a rank of lieutenant or lower. The report criticized the department for not taking action against officers who lied or covered for colleagues under a code of silence. The OIG noted specifically that there were fewer code of silence investigations in 1996 than in previous years, with fourteen officers disciplined for code of silence violations in 1993, twelve disciplined in 1994, ten in 1995, and none in 1996. Chief Williams took offense at this criticism as well, particularly after he had boasted to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights of a tougher line on code of silence violations. Said Williams, in response to the OIG findings, "I do take some personal offense that simply because the chief of police makes a statement at a public meeting, that now the inspector general is going to run out and see if we are in fact doing anything about addressing the code of silence."54 Yet that was an entirely appropriate inquiry for the IG's office to initiate.
In July 1997, the inspector general issued a report highlighting the issue of domestic violence involving LAPD officers and criticizing the department's investigations and punishments for those cases.55 According to her report, therewere 227 domestic violence cases investigated by the LAPD against its employees between 1990 and 1997.56 The OIG found that "many of the investigations lacked objectivity or were otherwise flawed or skewed."57 The OIG also found that there were many repeat offenders - thirty employees accounted for seventy-one of the 227 investigations (31 percent), and twenty-nine out of ninety-one sustained allegations (32 percent).58
Furthermore, "in more than 75 percent of the sustained cases, the performance evaluations of the employees failed to mention the sustained allegations of domestic violence, and many of the performance evaluations that did mention sustained domestic violence incidents tended to minimize the misconduct."59 In an example of a sustained excessive force complaint that was ignored in the officer's evaluation, the officer was found to have grabbed a complainant by the hair, forced her to fall down, and punched her in the upper torso with a closed fist. The OIG reported that his performance evaluation made no mention of the incident and stated that the officer had "consistently displayed a calm and professional demeanor even when dealing with the most highly agitated and stressful situations."60
In response to the OIG's report, a Domestic Violence Unit within the LAPD was created in mid-1997, and more LAPD officers were arrested in such cases.61 The increase in arrests of LAPD officers in surrounding communities may have been due in part to a letter sent to those jurisdictions by the department, requesting that LAPD officers not be given special treatment during criminal investigations.62
44 The Internal Affairs Division was reorganized and renamed the Internal Affairs Group in 1997. The IAG Commander told Human Rights Watch that the IAG did not conduct all excessive force allegation investigations but that if, for example, an abuse case gets a great deal of press attention, IAG will conduct the investigation itself. Telephone interview, IAG Commander James McMurray, May 8, 1998.
47 There are community police advisory boards that liaise with the eighteen police commanders around the city. While there are differing opinions about the effectiveness of these boards, they do appear able to alert police managers about emerging problems or tensions in their communities.
52 Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, Office of the Inspector General Six-Month Report, January 1997. Complaints received and deemed worthy of investigation are converted into formal complaint forms, then known as "1.81s." Since January 1998, complaint forms have been renamed "1.28s."
61 Scott Glover, "Arrests of accused abusers in LAPD soar," Los Angeles Times, February 20, 1998. Under a 1996 federal law, individuals convicted of domestic violence charges, including police officers, may not carry firearms. Police departments are required to identify officers with convictions who may not carry guns and, as a result, may be dismissed.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch