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As LAPD re-opens Dorner discipline case, critics say process is stacked in department's favor

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Chris Carlson/AP

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck says the department will take another look at Christopher Dorner's Board of Rights review.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has said he will review the case that resulted in Christopher Dorner's 2008 firing. His termination came after an internal review that found Dorner made false accusations against other officer.

But, according to critics of the LAPD, it's no surprise that the Board of Rights hearing went against Dorner, because they say the  disciplinary process inherently favors the department over officers who bring a complaint against a co-worker.

An LAPD Board of Rights hearing rarely, if ever, ends in favor of the officer accused of breaking department rules, said Carol Sobel, a civil rights lawyer who has represented witnesses at many disciplinary hearings.
 
The problem, she said, is that neither a judge nor jurors decide cases. The arbitrators are two LAPD officers ranked captain or above, along with one civilian. In essence, argued Sobel, police personnel are being tried by the same people who are trying to punish them.
 
"I don't think there's complete quasi-judicial independence," Sobel said. "These are officers who want a promotion. If the department is moving to fire, the board is usually not going to go against that."
 
A lawyer who has represented officers at Board of Rights hearings for some three decades agreed. He asked not to be identified because he fears retaliation from Dorner.

The lawyer said LAPD officers on the boards fear they won't be promoted if they go against the department. And the civilian member of the Board of Rights fears not being brought back to hear more cases if they offend the LAPD, said the lawyer.

But what this lawyer described as an "unfair process" would not always be to the detriment of his clients.
 
He said he has been amazed when some of his weakest cases would end in victories, because he said the LAPD was afraid of the outcome if the case were heard in court.
 
Above all, it's a process, he says, that strongly discourages whistleblowers.

In Dorner's case, two LAPD employees -- Dorner and the training officer he accused of kicking a suspect -- were named in the initial complaint. The Board of Rights deemed the accusations against the training officer unfounded, and added a charge against Dorner, that he lied about a fellow police officer. That's the charge that got him fired.

We tried to find out how many Board of Rights proceedings take place -- and exactly how many go against the LAPD, but neither the Department nor the Office of Inspector General responded to repeated requests for the information. 
 
Richard Drooyan is a member of the L.A. Police Commission; he's a former U.S. Attorney now in private law practice. He didn't know exact numbers either, but said he hasn't heard widespread discontent with the Board of Rights.
 
"Generally I think it's a pretty fair process. There's no inherent bias in the system," said Drooyan.
 
The system, he said, is  similar to a military tribunal: The two officers are there to provide a level of expertise that could benefit both sides.
 
"The captains certainly do have a lot of perspective and a lot of experiences, and I think they would have the interests of the officer in mind as well as the department," Drooyan said.
 
The Board of Rights was first established in the 1930's as a way to shield officers from interference from a corrupt police chief and mayor, according to a 2003 letter former LAPD Chief William Bratton wrote to the L.A. Times.

In the letter, Bratton said the Board was established for the right reasons, but the process meant he couldn't directly reprimand his officers.

Bratton wrote: "No chief executive...can truly control and lead his or her organization without control over the displinary process."
 

 

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