There is a charade going on at the Los Angeles Police Commission meeting every Tuesday. It goes like this: The public, mostly Black Lives Matter members, are chastised and even arrested for allegedly violating house rules and protocol. The ritual involves the presence of hordes of cops, presumably to “control” boisterous, “irreverent” members of the public. Has the Commission and LAPD changed appreciably over the past decade? No, given continuing police brutality, ongoing refusal to respect the right of the public to be heard, lack of transparency and widespread community distrust, respectively.
On January 26, 2007, this column was titled, “Devon Brown vs. LAPD, Police Commission, Police Board of Rights and Community.” Today’s column revisits that one, affording an opportunity to compare some aspects of the Police Commission’s policies and practice, as well as police- community relations, then and now, from a Black perspective.
“African Americans are up-in-arms over the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) secret hearing that found Officer Steven Garcia was justified in shooting and killing 13-year-old unarmed Devin Brown on February 6, 2005. Concern and outrage also centers on LAPD’s lack of transparency, exemplified in Garcia’s secret Board of Rights hearing.
Last year (2006), the Police Commission ruled the shooting “out of policy.” This subjected Garcia to disciplinary action by Chief William Bratton. The City Charter authorizes the chief of police, not his boss—the police commission, to make disciplinary decisions. After the Commission’s ruling, Bratton, who said Devin Brown’s killing was justified, ordered Garcia to a Board of Rights, which consists of two high-level officers and a civilian and has the final say in disciplinary matters
LAPD exemplifies a closed shop, militaristic management model that seeks compliance above all else. An “us vs. them” mentality practically ensures poor community relations, particularly with communities of color. Many, if not most, African Americans believe LAPD officers are disrespectful and insensitive to their concerns and mutual distrust characterizes their relations.
California’s Police Officers Bill of Rights is little known to the general public, but critically important to the issue of police misconduct. The Bill of Rights makes it nearly impossible to effectively challenge police abuse or other misbehavior. African Americans are disproportionately in confrontations with the police and regularly report instances of police brutality; officers’ rights, under cover of the omnipresent Police Officers Bill of Rights, always supersedes citizens’ rights.
LAPD recently closed officer discipline hearings on the advice of the City Attorney. His opinion is based on a California Supreme Court decision, Copley Press vs. Superior Court of San Diego, that restricted the use of records (documents). The court did not explicitly address hearings, but both Bratton and president of the Police Commission insist they are bound by the City Attorney’s decision. Last year (2006), the Police Commission changed its policy regarding shootings and now also withholds officers’ names from the public. (The Community Call to Action and Accountability and other local groups strongly protested the Commission’s actions with predictable results, no response.)
State Senator Gloria Romero plans to introduce legislation to prohibit secret disciplinary hearings. She says failure to strike a proper balance between police rights and transparency will lead to “a state which sanctions and knowingly runs a secret police.” Bob Baker, Los Angeles Police Protective League president, claims the public’s interest is already being served by the Board of Rights. “We will fight any legislative efforts that would reduce or remove this right of privacy.” (Could he have meant “piracy?”)
The Board of Rights found that virtually all of the evidence pointed to “Garcia’s perception that his life was in imminent danger.” This finding minimizes or ignores the Department’s own comprehensive, highly technically sophisticated re-enactment of the crime which concluded that Officer Garcia was probably not in harm’s way when he shot and killed Devin Brown. Much of this is about accountability. Secret hearings not only prevent public scrutiny and media access, but virtually ensure continuing community distrust.
Law professor Erwin Chemerinsky points out that officers who use deadly force do not have a privacy interest in being free from scrutiny. “This is about how a public employee performs on the job in the exercise of an extremely important responsibility—the use of deadly force.”
A host of factors contributes to the continuing distrust of LAPD. They include: Board of Rights decision that Devin Brown’s killing was in policy; LAPD’s policy allowing withholding of prior-related offenses (Steven Garcia had such priors); Police Commission’s not revealing the names of officers involved in shootings; Police Officers Bill of Rights; City Attorney’s recommendations to close disciplinary hearings; and the almost two-year delay in resolving Officer Garcia’s case.
These suggested factors are not exhaustive yet the Board of Rights found Garcia not responsible for killing unarmed 13 year old Devin Brown. Clearly, California’s Police Officers Bill of Rights is a major factor in all officer disciplinary cases; legislative and policy strategies are valuable only if they result in demonstrable police attitude and behavior change. And the community’s role is extremely important; without sustainable pressure on LAPD and local elected officials, the outcome of this, and similar cases will be substantially the same, i.e., the continuation of a stacked deck in favor of the police.”
Neither the police commission nor LAPD has changed appreciably since Devin Brown’s killing over ten years ago. Therefore, struggle to ensure they change fundamentally is as crucial as ever.