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Update: LAPD defends disciplinary hearings in the wake of Christopher Dorner case

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UPDATE 6:30 PM: The LAPD defended the way it handled Christopher Dorner’s disciplinary hearing and the process that officers go through before being fired from the force.

“I believe it was a fair trial,” said Deputy Chief Mark Perez. “I believe that the hearing officers went above and beyond what they had to go through the questioning process of getting to the really tough granular points of truth.”  

Cmdr Andrew Smith from the LAPD’s media relations division said the department has seen some inaccuracies from the media and their own on how the Board of Rights disciplinary process works.

“Some of the inaccuracies have been put out by members of our own department because either they don’t know or they have misperceptions of how the process works,” Smith said.

In a Q&A type press conference, LAPD Deputy Chief Mark Perez gave a brief history of how the department’s Board of Rights was established, its purpose, and took questions from the media about the process works. Below is a summary of what was discussed and asked.

What is the Board of Rights?

Perez: A board of rights is a process that looks very much like a court martial. There’s a panel of three people of what we would think of as judges. There is prosecutor and there is a defender. The accused is on the defense side. The department provides an advocate to present the department’s case.

The officer is allowed to have a lawyer or representative of their choice at their own expense at the hearing. They can present any evidence they want, any witnesses, and make closing arguments to defend the allegation against them.

Who sits on the Board of Rights panel?

Perez: Two command officers and one civilian member, typically someone who has some kind of attorney experience.

In the 1990s, the city decided they no longer wanted just command staff officers being the judges, so they replaced one civilian person, independent of the police department, to sit on the panel. It was done to give the idea that the police department itself wouldn’t be the sole arbiter of terminations or any other kind of discipline that involves a suspension or higher.  

Who gets to choose the Board of Rights panel members?

Perez: The civilian member is selected by the Police Commission. They participate in every single phase of the Board of Rights; they have the same voting rights and they can write minority reports if they choose do so.

The two command officers are selected at random, so to speak. You don’t have the same commanding officers doing the same thing all the time. The accused officer can pick from a drum at random four names and then pick two of those commanding officers to sit on your Board of Rights hearing.

How does an officer get to a Board of Rights hearing?

Perez: A Board of Rights is available as an appeal process for any LAPD officer that is subject to discipline involving a suspension, demotion or termination. The officer can appeal to the Board of Rights.

An officer can find him or herself at a Board of Rights hearing if they are accused of using force, allegations of other types of misconduct other than using force. And then we have a special operations division which does mostly covert operations, that is we have a group of people who are undercover, and surveil police officers to see whether they are doing what they are supposed to be doing when they don’t know they are being watched. 

Personnel complaints can come from there.

We investigate anything that is reported by a citizen. Those are recorded and documented. Not all of those go to Board of Rights, actually few of them do, but they are all investigated and Internal Affairs investigates them with the divisions that the accused officer is with.

What is the Board of Rights panel purpose or role?

Perez: There are two parts. The first is the finding on guilt. They determine whether the facts, as presented to the board by a preponderance of the evidence, find that the officer did or did not commit the allegations.

If the officer is found guilty in the first stage, then there is the penalty phase. The board examines the officer’s performance history, personnel package, and character witnesses.

Then the panel makes a decision. It can be anything from termination to an official reprimand (suspension up to 65 working days) to a demotion. The decision is presented as a recommendation to the Chief of Police who has holds the ultimate decision but the police chief cannot issue a punishment that is harsher than what the Board of Rights Panel recommends.

Can an officer appeal the Board of Rights panel decision?

Perez: The officer can go to the Superior Court and challenge the process in court. That doesn’t occur all the time but it does occur occasionally.

When they do so the court has access to all of the transcripts, all of the evidence from the Board of Rights hearing and can make an independent judgment on whether the police department acted properly and that the officer had due process in the hearing.

If the court finds that somehow the police officer was not properly tried, the court can do whatever they want with it. They can reverse it, send it back for rehearing on certain features, or find the officer not guilty and restore them entirely.

Deputy Chief Mark Perez said state personnel laws prohibit the department’s Board of Rights hearings from being open to the public.

In 2012, there were 49 Board of Rights hearings. In 2011, there were 24. In 2010, there were 42 hearings.

The LAPD fired 33 people in 2012, 15 people in 2011, and 22 people were fired in 2010.

In Christopher Dorner’s firing hearing, all three Board of Rights panel members voted to terminate him. Dorner appealed the decision in civil court unsuccessfully.

“The facts were clear enough for the judge not to overturn it and clear enough for the appellate court that looked at that judges ruling to not overturn it,” Perez said.

Since Police Chief Charlie Beck has said they will reopen Dorner’s case, at least six other fired police officers have said they wanted their own cases reexamined.

Deputy Chief Perez said he wasn’t surprised.

“If I got fired and all this fuss came after I got fired, I think I’d probably go do the same thing,” he said.

EARLIER: The Christopher Dorner case focused attention on the way the Los Angeles Police Department handles disciplinary hearings and firings, and on Wednesday at 2 p.m., the department will hold a press briefing to answer more questions about that process.

During the Dorner search, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck announced a review of its Board of Rights disciplinary process, which in Dorner's case resulted in the ex-cop's dismissal from the department. Beck said he was reopening Dorner’s case to show departmental transparency and build public trust.

On Tuesday, the big news of the day was that six former LAPD officers told the department and the Los Angeles Police Protective League that they also want their firing cases reopened.

Wednesday's press briefing will be run by LAPD Deputy Chief Mark Perez, who is the commanding officer of the Professional Standards Bureau, Internal Affairs Group. Here's what the LAPD wrote in its press release about the Internal Affairs Group:

The Los Angeles Police Department’s Internal Affairs Group (IAG) was created in 1949. The goal of IAG is to improve and maintain the public’s confidence that all complaints will be thoroughly and impartially investigated. For more than fifty years, IAG, currently under the command of Professional Standards Bureau, has operated as the investigative arm of the Chief of Police to identify and report corruption and employee behavior that tends to discredit the Department or violate a Department policy, procedure or practice. Internal Affairs Group also conducts Board of Rights hearings and reviews all complaint investigations for consistency and fairness. Complaints are presented to the Chief of Police for a fair and appropriate adjudication and/or sanction, with consideration given to the complainant, the Department, the individual employee, and the public trust

Here’s what we know so far about the Board of Rights (BOR) process:

  • The BOR process was established in the 1930s
  • Two LAPD captains or high-ranked officers and one civilian sit on the BOR disciplinary board that hear cases
  • A lawyer can represent the officer’s grievances
  • After hearing the case, the BOR board recommends to the chief an appropriate punishment

Wrongful termination claims are common with LAPD, as they are with many government agencies. Once such claims go through LAPD’s internal system, fired employees can also sue the department, as Dorner did unsuccessfully.

For the past five years, the department has averaged 25 employment lawsuits per year, up from 17 per year from 2002-'06. In 2011, the city paid out $24 million in liability claims against the LAPD, though that figure includes a broad array of claims, including traffic accidents and use of force lawsuits. 

If you have questions, email me at eaguilar@scpr.org or post them in the comments below. I’ll try to get some answers for them and write about it later.

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