Los Angeles City voters Tuesday overwhelmingly approved Measure C, a police union-backed initiative that will create civilian discipline boards to decide when LAPD officers should be fired. Officers accused of wrongdoing will now have the option of defending themselves before a review board comprised of three civilian hearing examiners instead of the current make-up of two command officers and one civilian examiner.
Worried about data that shows civilians tend to be more lenient than command officers, police watchdogs including the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Black Lives Matter staunchly opposed the measure. They say they’ll now take their fight to the city council, which must pass an ordinance enacting Measure C.
Here are five questions ahead for the council, mayor, police and watchdogs.
Who should qualify to sit as a civilian hearing examiner?
Right now, 28 of the 38 civilians who serve on LAPD Board of Rights panels are attorneys. Yet the manual that governs the panels specifically says they are not legal proceedings. They should be “characterized by informality” and “the fact that the law has provided for a Board of Rights not composed of lawyers is sufficient proof that they shall not be expected to know or attempt to follow the strict rules of evidence," the manual says.
Police watchdogs say they will lobby the city council to broaden the pool of civilian hearing examiners so that they represent a better cross-section of Los Angeles residents in terms of racial, gender, economic and geographic diversity – with an eye toward getting people on the panels who will be tougher on cops.
(The panels decide two things: first, whether an officer is guilty of misconduct allegations, which can involve on-duty behavior like excessive force and falsifying a police report or off-duty incidents like domestic violence or a DUI. A guilty verdict triggers a second phase during which the panel decides whether they should follow recommendations for termination or some other punishment. The LAPD chief may reduce the punishment but not increase it. If the officer is found not guilty, the chief’s hands are tied.)
Who should select the civilian hearing examiners?
Right now, the executive director of the police commission selects civilians to serve on the Board of Rights. The police commission approves each civilian in closed session - an act that has attracted little if any public attention in the past.
Watchdogs point out current Executive Director Richard Tefank is a former police officer who once served as chief of the Pomona Police Department. Some argue he – and the five civilian members of the police commission appointed by the mayor – are too close to the LAPD to impartially select civilian hearing examiners.
“We are definitely going to look at the selection process,” said Pete White of the LA Community Action Network or LA CAN. He prefers a group unaffiliated with the department pick the civilian hearing examiners.
A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said the current plan is for the police commission to retain the authority to appoint civilian hearing examiners.
Will the city council require more LAPD transparency on discipline?
For decades, LAPD Board of Rights hearings were open to the public. Following a 2006 California Supreme Court ruling restricting public access to police records, the L.A. city attorney advised the department to close the hearings. Then Chief William Bratton said he had no choice but to follow the advice. The union that represents officers cheered, arguing cops are entitled to privacy just like any other employee in California.
A city report earlier this year provided the first statistical data on how the boards operate – finding these panels rejected Beck’s requests to fire officers in the majority of the 229 termination cases heard since 2011. Watchdogs want the city council at minimum to mandate more regular reporting of the panel’s actions.
What role will City Council President Herb Wesson play?
It was Mayor Garcetti who worked with police union officials to craft Measure C. But it was City Council President Herb Wesson who got it on the ballot. With some council members unclear on the exact effect of the measure, they went along with the powerful council president’s request to place it before voters.
Wesson, who controls the flow of legislation and issues that flow through the council, is now in the driver’s seat on the ordinance enacting Measure C. When watchdogs cried foul as the council was voting to put C on the ballot, Wesson promised to conduct community outreach meetings. A spokesperson Wednesday said he still intended to do that but offered no details on what her boss had in mind for the enacting ordinance.
The $64,000 question
Will the addition of all civilian discipline boards result in bad cops keeping their jobs or good cops getting terminated?
The city study found that when the Board of Rights found an officer not guilty of misconduct, the civilian member of current panels, which include two command officers, always voted to acquit. That would suggest panels with all civilians will fire fewer cops. But there’s a new spotlight on the process, and the civilian pool is likely to grow. So it’s impossible to definitely say civilians will continue being more lenient than command officers on the panels.
The president of the police union, Craig Lally, predicts little will change with the all-civilian boards – that they will follow the chief’s recommendations for termination at about the same rate as the panels with two members of the chief’s command staff and one civilian. That runs counter to the union’s argument during the election that officers can’t get a fair hearing before a panel that includes LAPD brass.