Sunday, May 20, 2007

LAPD Reform

No one must be above the law, especially those who have sworn to uphold it. In a letter to Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton published on the LAPD Online website1, Brian Allan Fiebelkorn, a witness in the Robert Blake case, calls for reforms in the policies and procedures surrounding police internal affairs complaints. In it, he cites issues with both state law and internal LAPD regulations.

In particular, Fiebelkorn quotes the following paragraph from a letter he received from the Los Angeles Police Commission:

State law prohibits the imposition of discipline or other punitive action by the [LAPD] if the investigation is more than one year old. In addition, State law limits the amount of information we can reveal to you about the [LAPD's] investigation."

The above paragraph applies to internal discipline of employees and not to criminal allegations. Time limits on criminal offenses are governed by statutes depending upon the crime. Obviously, however, some internal investigations may require more than one year to complete. Facts in a case may surface years later, and those facts may either confirm or discredit the complaint.

Imposing a time limit on a police misconduct complaint gives parties involved a reason to stall the process, either intentionally or unintentionally. In addition, the law also provides a backdoor exit on accountability when information regarding the findings of the complaint are withheld from the complainant. Ultimately, there is a potential to close the complaint without resolution. In his letter, Fiebelkorn speculates "that these questionable provisions have stifled many findings against officers by LAPD internal investigations" and cites his and defense attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach's complaint in the Blake case2.

The LAPD Rampart scandal all too well exposed these shortcomings. Many of the complaints remain outstanding because the statute of limitations ran out on prosecuting the crimes3.

These are not the only precedents that restrict police investigative reform. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government employees do not have free-speech protections in their workplace, and therefore, set limits on government whistleblowers4. This ruling has serious implications on police internal affairs investigations. In an organization which unofficially adheres to a code of silence, the ruling further discourages police officers from reporting wrongdoings.

As Fiebelkorn states in his letter, the time for reform is now. But for reform to happen, not only the laws must change, but those who are charged with upholding the law must change as well. Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, commenting on the Supreme Court's whistleblower ruling, said in a statement that the ruling "allows public employers to conduct the people's business without undue disruption and without turning routine personnel decisions into federal cases." (The Enron chiefs probably wished Cooley had been their District Attorney.) But then, Cooley has his own troubles with whistleblowers5.

There may be some reform coming from the California legislature. State Bill 1019 provides some public access to police disciplinary actions. The bill has passed a senate committee on public safety. However, it is too early to predict the fate of that bill6.

Fiebelkorn ends his letter with his faith in the 11,000 LAPD employees. It is these employees that must press for change as well, for it is a handful of wrongdoers that reflects poorly on them all. And that handful not only violates the rights of the citizens they victimize, but diminishes the trust all citizens have in their police.

And that is a crime against us all.

1 LAPD Blog: Chief Bratton Briefs Media on MacArthur Park Disturbance/Fiebelkorn Letter
2 Eye on the Sparrow: Corruption
3 CNN: LAPD Corruption
4 High Court Trims Whistleblower Rights
5 LA Weekly: The Steve and Bob Show
6 San Diego Union Tribune: California Bill Targets Access to Now Secret Police Misconduct Cases

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