The civilian oversight board for the Los Angeles Police Department is at odds with the way the department handles police officer misconduct, especially when it involves officers who have fired their weapons or used deadly force.
The years-old debate over discipline has bubbled up at commission meetings since former police chief William Bratton introduced the idea of “conditional official reprimands,” as LAPD calls them, in 2007.
Those reprimands are a warning system used to discipline officers. For example, if an officer is found to have driven while drunk, or to have participated in a non-violent domestic dispute or failed to follow department procedures, a superior can put that officer on notice with a warning that if he or she commits the same or similar misconduct, a suspension or worse could follow.
The traditional discipline policy relied on incremental immediate suspensions without pay, a strategy current police chief Charlie Beck criticizes. He says it doesn't change habitual bad behavior in officers because the police union often pays an officer’s salary when the department suspends him or her without pay.
“It really wasn’t intended to be a special kind of penalty,” deputy chief Mark Perez of LAPD’s professional standards bureau said at Tuesday’s police commission meeting. Perez worked with Bratton and Beck to introduce the new policy years ago.
“It was intended to be a reprimand that told you what would happen next time," he told the commission. "It was intended to make it easier to give people notice of what will happen next time.”
Perez said his stats indicate a 10 percent drop since 2008 in officers who repeated the same misconduct under the warning system compared with the traditional suspension system.
The civilian oversight panel took turns questioning Perez about why there isn’t a penalty guideline that clearly defines what kind of misconduct rates what kind of discipline, and whether the superiors considered prior warnings when officers committed different kinds of misconduct than the original offense. A couple of commissioners pointed out that the language in the warning policy states harsher punishment would be warranted if the officer recommits the “same or similar” type of misconduct.
“Just because the conditional reprimand is narrow on its consequences, doesn’t mean we can’t consider it in other situations,” Perez said. “And we in fact do.”
The police commission on Tuesday received a report about seven officers involved in shootings or negligent discharge of their weapons between 2010 and July 2012 that were found to be out-of-policy. The department disciplined each one using the warning system.
One incident involved an officer who accidently shot a live round into the air while unloading his firearm. He was given a “conditional official reprimand” and a warning that if he did it again within five years, he would receive a suspension of at least 10 days.
Another incident involved two officers who shot a suspect armed with a gun who resisted arrest and fought officers after several knee strikes. Officers shot the suspect once as he tried to retrieve his handgun and a second time when he didn't have a gun on him anymore. One of the officers failed to tell his partner that he'd taken the gun away from the suspect. The police department ordered extensive retraining with a “conditional official reprimand” that said if the officer is alleged to be deficient in tactics again, he would receive at least 15 days' suspension.
Four police commissioners expressed skepticism about the way the department could use a warning to punish an officer it found to have used force in a manner it considered out-of-policy.
Rafael Bernardino, Jr., the newest member of the police commission and newest to the discipline policy debate, questioned the consistency of punishment and its application in use-of-force situations.
“After hearing this discussion for the first time, perhaps this is an appropriate way to measure everything except issues regarding use-of-force or otherwise,” Bernardino said.
Although the police commission reviews department policy and situations when an officer uses force, police chief Charlie Beck has ultimate authority over how to discipline an officer.
After heated discussion over the warning policy with the commissioners, Beck told them not to evaluate the commanding officers who administer the policy but to “use it with me as your evaluation of my employment.”