Despite the ugly truths revealed by the Rampart investigation

Don't judge LAPD by a few badshield.jpg (22181 bytes) individuals

by Donna J. Wade
published in the LA Daily News, May 10, 2000

The Rampart debacle and resulting crisis of confidence in the judicial system creates interesting challenges not only for the city's elected officials, but for its diverse communities, where trust in those sworn to protect and serve has been severely tested since before Rodney King.

And now the U.S. Department of Justice's ultimatum to implement its suggested reforms or face a federal police misconduct lawsuit ensures that changes in the Los Angeles Police Department are imminent.

My involvement with LAPD began as a civil rights activist in the late 1980s, when I co-chaired a gay and lesbian organization determined to open a meaningful dialogue with the agency regarding issues specific to our community. After a few years of picketing Parker Center and lobbying City Hall, I came to believe that a better way to effect real change in the system was to work from within it. I first became a volunteer instructor of cultural diversity training for recruit and line personnel, then later a specialist reserve officer.

One of the recommendations of the 1991 Christopher Commission implemented by the department is the involvement of civilians in the department's disciplinary process.

As a civilian member serving on LAPD's administrative Boards of Rights, which adjudicate allegations of officer misconduct, I've enjoyed working with many dedicated, hard-working men and women of the LAPD on a regular basis. When officers are found guilty of misconduct, they are punished, although the system often doesn't work as swiftly as I'd like, especially when lawyers are involved.

With few exceptions, the safety, needs, and welfare of the public are of primary concern to the boards. In nearly six years serving on boards there has been only one occasion when I felt the findings of the board to be inconsistent with that focus, and, because of the way the system works, the official record of the proceedings includes the minority opinion I authored detailing my disagreement.

I am a former police officer from another state and no stranger to investigative protocol, and I have seldom found reason to take issue with either the thoroughness or objectivity of complaint investigations.

Regardless of whether the City Council enters into a consent decree -- in effect surrendering ultimate control of the agency to a federal court-appointed watchdog -- or decides to challenge the allegations in federal court, it is clear that time has run out on Chief Parks' current reform agenda.

During his brief tenure as chief, Parks has fired more than twice the number of officers for misconduct than his predecessors did. He has ordered that every citizen complaint be thoroughly investigated and adjudicated, and established a policy of zero tolerance for dishonesty, theft, spousal abuse, and other breaches of ethics. Offenses which, in the past, would result in suspensions are now cases for termination.

Parks has made his expectations of officers crystal clear to commanders, and he expects them to make it equally clear to their subordinates, and backs up his vision for the department with what many would call an increasingly draconian disciplinary process. But reforming the way the department metes out discipline, and raising the bar on performance and ethical standards, is clearly not enough to satisfy those who feel the department is dragging its feet on more sweeping reforms mandated by the electorate.

One of the Department of Justice's major criticisms is that the department has failed to develop a method to monitor officer conduct to identify trends which foster abuses of power. I would argue that while such a system is vital to re-establishing public confidence in the department, LAPD currently lacks sufficient supervisory resources to make such full-time auditing viable.

The chief's increased emphasis on disciplining errant officers has resulted in a tremendous increase in the number of administrative trial boards, each of which requires two command-level officers, the bulk of whom are captains and commanders of the city's 18 geographic divisions. Many have told me that with their schedules of staff meetings, community obligations, and trial boards, they're lucky to get through all the paperwork in their in-baskets by the end of their often 14-plus-hour days. This leaves little time to actually go out into the field to assess first-hand what is actually happening in their divisions.

Some may suggest that the city contract an outside civilian agency to act as monitors, doubting the department's ability to objectively review itself. I believe such a scenario would require an organization with a thorough understanding of not only the strategies, tactics, and realities of modern policing, but, more importantly, of the evolving organizational culture and its language, if they are to have a prayer of a chance at identifying subtler problematic trends.

The Department of Justice also indicated that the Police Commission does not have adequate resources to effectively direct the department. I believe that a seat on the Board of Police Commissioners should be a full-time salaried position, allowing Commissioners to completely focus their energies on the management of the agency, rather than forcing them to balance other career obligations with the demands of LAPD oversight.

The Commission's budget must be increased sufficiently to allow them to do their jobs effectively. It's money well spent if it allows the Commission to identify and correct problem areas before they lead to costly lawsuits.

I still believe in our criminal justice system and our men and women in blue. I realize that as long as the LAPD continues to recruit personnel from the human race, the possibility exists for abuses of power.

The challenge to both the district attorney's office and LAPD management is multi-faceted. First and foremost is to devise, quickly implement, and vigorously monitor a workable system of checks and balances designed to limit the opportunity for Rampart-like abuses under color of authority.

Second is to conduct prompt, thorough investigations of such allegations utilizing personnel from both Internal Affairs Group and the DA's office, not investigators from the accused officer's division of assignment, as has been past practice.

Third, but perhaps the most important for re-establishing agency credibility, is to prosecute perpetrators to the fullest extent of the law.

The recent "mine's bigger than yours" contest between Chief Parks and district attorney Gil Garcetti poses a glaring reminder that the citizens aren't getting their money's worth from their public officials. I have seen little evidence that either man has so much as entertained the notion of even collateral responsibility for any of the Rampart mess. They are, however, quick to sanctimoniously assert their commitment to ferreting out corruption in all its forms.

What I find repugnant is that neither appears averse to using the situation to reinforce their political power base, both within the department and without.

Whatever happened to "the buck stops here"? Both men have asserted, at one time or another, that supervisors must be held accountable for the actions of subordinates. Yet neither feels the need to even acknowledge that Rampart happened on his watch.

Rampart didn't happen in a vacuum. Supervisors at both the DA's office and the department had warning signs, but chose to ignore them.

If there's to be any hope of healing the potentially mortal wound dealt to the public trust, the process has to begin with the powers that be. From Mayor Riordan on down, each must step up to shoulder responsibility for the failures of their administrations that fostered our current sad state of affairs.

Parks supporters argue that Willie Williams was chief for part of the time some Rampart officers were making their own rules, so he's to blame. With that kind of convenient, tunnel-visioned approach, it's no wonder the city's political sideshow is beginning play out like a scene from South Park. During the timeframe when these events occurred, Parks was in charge of the Bureau of Special Investigations, which includes Internal Affairs. In other words, he was the top "integrity" cop, and, I believe, must share responsibility for the paucity of leadership that not only spawned Rampart, but allowed it to flourish unchecked for years.

Chief among the real losers in this mess are the rank and file of the LAPD, all of whom have been painted with that infamous broad brush which should be reserved for the fraction of officers who overstepped the legal and ethical bounds of their authority.

For the sake of argument, let's say the joint investigative effort of LAPD and the feds reveals that 50 cops are corrupt. That leaves roughly 9400 who are not, and who continue daily to put forth their best, and often heroic, efforts for a community and a department who seem intent on finding fault with their every move.

I believe the staggering lack of morale and managerial support for those who honorably carry out their duties will eventually cost the city much more than the millions of dollars projected in lawsuit settlements.

Many of the officers I know still love being police officers, but are so disheartened and disgusted by the aspersions cast upon them by the actions of a few that they are submitting resumes to other agencies as fast as the hiring notices post. Officers who have spoken with me feel betrayed and abandoned by department leadership, maligned by the press, and unappreciated by the public. Some have even indicated a reluctance to initiate any sort of proactive policing, opting only to respond to radio calls because they fear a personnel complaint at every turn.

This serves well neither the department nor the community it protects, and the city of Los Angeles can ill afford the expense of training officers only to see them jump ship to other municipalities.

Every Angeleno has a responsibility to refrain from judging an entire agency based on the actions of a few. We must remember to maintain the distinction between problems which are inherent in the nature of our criminal justice system, and those which are the result of unscrupulous individuals subverting it for their own twisted purposes. The former we must correct. The latter we must punish. And we must hold our elected officials' feet to the fire until that is accomplished.

The public safety depends on it. Los Angeles' civic character, and its future, will be defined by it.

Donna J. Wade served from July 1994 until June 2006 as one of a cadre of civilians appointed as LAPD administrative trial board members by the Los Angeles Police Commission.


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