A proposal to give civilians more say in LAPD's disciplinary system could end up more lenient on officers

A proposal that would give civilians a greater role in the discipline of Los Angeles police officers accused of serious misconduct could also lead to more leniency for officers facing termination or lengthy suspensions.

A new analysis prepared for the City Council showed that civilian members of the boards that weigh major LAPD discipline cases are “consistently more lenient” than their sworn counterparts, frequently voting to acquit officers or dole out lesser punishments. 

The findings come as Mayor Eric Garcetti and key council members are pushing a ballot measure that, if approved by voters in May, would allow an LAPD officer facing discipline to have the case heard by an all-civilian panel. Under the current system, the boards are made up of two high-ranking officers and only one civilian.

The move would mark perhaps the most significant change to the LAPD’s often-criticized disciplinary system in decades — one that has long been sought by the union representing rank-and-file officers.

Some community activists said the report’s findings raise questions about whether allowing more civilians to hear LAPD disciplinary cases would improve accountability.

Karren Lane, vice president of policy for the South L.A.-based Community Coalition, said Garcetti and the council need “to ask harder questions” about the proposed ballot measure. Although Lane agrees that the LAPD’s disciplinary system needs reform, she said the focus should be on greater transparency so that the public knows how disciplinary decisions are made.

Under state law, police discipline matters — including the LAPD’s board of rights hearings — are secret.

“We just highly question whether this is the union’s attempt to take power away from Chief Beck and not so much about reforming the disciplinary process in a way that’s more fair and transparent,” Lane said.

A representative of Councilman Herb Wesson, who unveiled plans for the ballot measure in November, said Monday that the analysis hadn’t changed his mind. Garcetti said he also remains a supporter of the proposal, noting that the LAPD is already overseen by the Police Commission, a five-person panel made up exclusively of civilians.

“I trust juries. I trust everyday Angelenos and Americans to make big decisions. They’re the cornerstone of our democracy,” Garcetti said. “So I think that [the measure] is a smart way to move forward.”

The proposal comes as Garcetti is seeking reelection to his second and final term. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that has been pushing for the ballot measure, is a major player in municipal elections and spent more than $1.5 million to support Garcetti’s opponent in 2013.

The City Council is expected to vote Wednesday on whether to draft the measure, which would change the composition of the disciplinary panels, known formally as boards of rights.

Under the current system, Beck must send any officer he wants to fire to a board of rights hearing. If the panel determines the officer is guilty of the accusations, it then recommends whether to fire the officer or assign a lesser penalty, such as a suspension. The chief can either accept or reduce that punishment, but not increase its severity.

The report released by the city last week showed that the board of rights panels rejected Beck’s requests to fire officers in the majority of 229 termination cases heard since 2011. A separate analysis from the LAPD showed that in 51% of cases, the panels either voted to acquit officers or handed down penalties less serious than termination, allowing the officers to keep their jobs.

From 2011 through November 2016, in cases where the officers were found not guilty of misconduct, the civilian member always voted to acquit the officer, city analysts said.

The LAPD’s disciplinary system has generated complaints both inside and outside the department. The league, which represents about 9,800 LAPD officers, has taken particular aim at the board of rights panels, accusing the chief of having a “corrupting influence” on the boards in a lawsuit filed last year.

Union officials contend that the existing disciplinary boards can be unfairly swayed by favoritism within the LAPD — or by the chief’s influence over the two officers who sit on each panel. Craig Lally, the league’s president, said Monday that he believes civilian members have often voted in favor of officers because civilians look at the cases more objectively, without pressure from the police chief.

“It’s about fairness,” said Lally, a 35-year veteran of the LAPD. “It doesn’t matter who the chief is. This system has been broken since I’ve been on the job.”

Beck has publicly questioned the union’s motives. In a statement issued Monday, an LAPD spokesman said the report “identifies several important concerns regarding the proposed change.”

“Holding officers accountable for serious misconduct is essential to maintaining the public’s trust and any changes to the system that may limit the chief and the city’s ability to terminate a police officer who has violated the law or committed serious misconduct should be examined very closely,” Josh Rubenstein said.

Rob Saltzman, a former police commissioner who frequently raised concerns over officer discipline, said the leniency shown by civilians during the board of rights hearings has led him to conclude that the ballot measure “is not a good way to go.” It would make more sense, he said, to give the chief greater authority over discipline and have him held accountable for his decisions.

Pete White, executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a group that has been calling for greater accountability in LAPD use-of-force cases, said he believes the ballot proposal is aimed squarely at Beck — and would diminish his authority over disciplinary matters.

White, whose group opposes the plan, said city leaders should pursue other changes to the LAPD disciplinary system, such as requiring greater transparency on how cases are decided.

“If this is about Chief Beck and this is about his leadership … they should not cook up ballot measure schemes to reduce his power,” he added. “Instead, just get rid of him.”

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