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All-civilian disciplinary boards are more lenient with LAPD officers, report finds

Los Angeles Police Department officials said on Tuesday they would ask the City Council to reconsider a rule that allows officers charged with gross misconduct to let civilians decide their discipline – after a report revealed they regularly handed down lenient sentences.

According to LAPD Inspector General Mark Smith’s report, the lighter discipline issued by all-civilian Hearing Boards undermines Chief Michel Moore’s ability to lead the LAPD and hold officers to account when found that they have committed major offenses such as lying.

The findings reflect a “power imbalance” between Moore and the hearing panels that “significantly undermines the Department’s ability to control itself,” the report said.

“A system that allows for the outright and incontrovertible reversal of a chief’s disciplinary decisions undermines the Department’s proper efforts to promote internal accountability,” the report said.

Under the LAPD’s disciplinary system, the chief does not have the authority to fire an officer. When the chief feels the dismissal is necessary, the officer is entitled to a hearing before a three-person panel, called a rights board. Hearings are mini-trials in which the officer and ministry officials present evidence and call witnesses. An officer may also request a council hearing to challenge a suspension or demotion issued by the chief.

Until 2019, panels consisted of one civilian and two LAPD officers with the rank of captain or higher; but with the passage of Measure C that year, officers could choose to have their case heard by an all-civilian commission.

After the council approved the measure with backing from the police union and Mayor Eric Garcetti, few officers initially chose a civilian panel. This changed over the following years; so far in 2022, every officer facing layoff has chosen that option, according to LAPD officials.

With more officers opting for hearings before all-civilian panels, the share of cases in which commissions issued lighter penalties than those sought by Moore rose from 55% in 2019 to 76% in 2021, according to the report. of the Inspector General. The review covered 90 Human Rights Commission hearings between September 2019 and December 2021.

In cases where the chief wanted an officer fired, traditional panels agreed with the chief half the time. Civilian panels overruled the leader more than two-thirds of the time, according to the report.

One of the reasons for the imbalance, according to the report, is that department attorneys, who play a prosecutor-like role in hearings, often lack formal legal training, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to attorneys who represent officers in increasingly contentious proceedings. Department attorneys fare particularly poorly before all-civilian panels, which tend to require both sides to submit written arguments and follow other trial-like procedures, according to the report.

The department asked for money in its 2023-24 budget proposal to hire five attorneys who would focus solely on those disciplinary hearings — one of the few recommendations made in the report.

The report, which was presented to the Police Commission at its virtual meeting on Tuesday, confirmed an inspector general audit released last year that found that hearing commissions made up entirely of civilians were more likely than commissions made up of law enforcement officials to quash harsher discipline.

“Officers are trying to find their best opportunity for clemency,” Moore said during Tuesday’s hearing. “It’s a natural response and one that I would understand.”

Police Commissioner Eileen Decker said she found the findings of the review “deeply disturbing”.

“There is no other place where the odds of having a lower court decision overturned are as high as this process,” said Decker, a former assistant U.S. attorney.

LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Rimkunas said later during the meeting that the department intended to send a letter to the city council asking it to review Measure C, but did not provide specifics. Officials also announced an update to the department’s rights board manual and plans to begin posting panelists’ names and their decisions on the Police Commission’s website.

At the time the measure was approved, the union representing rank and file officers said traditional panels were unfair because LAPD officials serving on them had a vested interest in supporting their boss, the police chief. Critics of the proposal, meanwhile, argued that the civilians chosen for the panels would not adequately represent the interests of the public and ultimately offer less accountability than traditional panels.

In the report, LAPD officials complained that civilian panelists were unfamiliar with department policies and did not fully appreciate “the ramifications of retaining officers who have committed gross misconduct.”

According to some, this has led to scenarios in which an all-civilian panel rejects the firing proposal of an officer who, for example, is caught lying on the job, failing to understand that an officer whose credibility is tainted cannot effectively testify in court against people. they stop.

“Sometimes, in cases involving the most egregious types of misconduct, it means the leader has no choice but to retain an officer who the leader has already determined is no longer fit to perform the duties of the officer. essential duties of a peace officer and should be terminated from employment with the Department,” the review found.

The report drew a strong rebuke from the officers’ union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which suggested it was one-sided and sought to give Moore too much power in disciplinary matters.

Speaking during the commission’s public comment period, police union general counsel Robert Rico said the report was “clearly written to elicit a more punitive approach” and omitted a important context about the legitimate reasons review panels might have for recommending a lesser sentence.

Civilian and traditional panels appeared to place particular weight on the testimony of other officers, according to the inspector general’s report.

In one case cited in the report, an LAPD officer was recommended for termination after being arrested for drunk driving in a department vehicle while off duty, among other offenses.

But the panel instead recommended a 65-day suspension without pay and demotion, the report said, after an LAPD captain testified on the officer’s behalf, telling the board the officer would continue to be an asset. for the department despite his alcoholism. .

Los Angeles Times

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