If You Care About Police Oversight, You Need to Vote on May 16

Charter Amendment C’s passage might actually make it harder to hold officers accountable

Believe it or not, May 16 marks yet another local election. With so few items on the ballot, it’s tempting to sit this one out—especially if you’re not in a district with a city council run-off, or if you’re not up on the latest school board elections. For many Angelenos there’s only one thing to even vote on—a little-discussed Charter Amendment that, at first glance, seems like a good thing. (Civilian oversight! Police being held accountable for misconduct! Who could argue with that?) But here’s why you should still show up on May 16—and why you should vote “No” on C:

 What’s Charter Amendment C even about?

It’s a measure that would give police officers—who the chief of police has found to have engaged in serious misconduct—the option to appeal to a Board of Rights panel consisting of three civilians, rather than the current panel, which is made up of two command-level officers and one civilian.

That all sounds fine so far.

At first, yeah. But a little background is key here: The Board of Rights doesn’t have the power to increase a punishment—just to uphold or reduce what the chief has recommended.

Already, it errs on the side of reducing penalties more often than not. In more than half of the cases over the past six years in which the chief of police has recommended that an officer be fired, the Board of Rights has overturned that decision and kept the officer on the force. “That’s stunning,” says Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California and director of police practices for the ACLU of California. “At a time when the public has been demanding greater assurances of police accountability, even in those few cases where the police chief actually reaches a decision to fire an officer, he gets overturned more than half the time.”

The citizens who sit on the Board of Rights aren’t just any Angelenos. They’re hired by the Board of Police Commissioners, and they need at least seven years experience in arbitration, mediation, or administrative hearings. This requirement rules out the majority of L.A. residents, especially ones in communities most affected by policing.

The civilians who do make it on the Board are “consistently more lenient than their sworn officer counterparts” according to the report presented to City Council by the Chief Legislative Analyst. That’s right—they’re less likely to hold an officer accountable than other police officers.

Really? Is anyone else worried about this?

Yep. It’s hard to buy that allowing accused officers to pick an all-civilian board will result in more accountability, which is why so many groups (including the ACLU of Southern California, Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles, the League of Women Voters, the L.A. Times Editorial Board, and a whole bunch of other groups) oppose C, while the Los Angeles Police Protective League supports it. (Craig Lally, president of the LAPPL, did not respond to a request for comment.)

What if we just changed the process by which citizens were selected for this board?

If passed, Measure C would give accused officers the choice of an all-civilian panel, so even if the all-civilian Board of Rights became less lenient, officers could just opt to pick the Board of Rights option with only one civilian instead. “This is being sold as ‘civilian oversight’ or ‘holding officers more accountable,’” said Bibring. “At the end of the day, a system that gives an officer who’s been found by the department to have engaged in serious misconduct the choice of the most lenient option to appeal their discipline—that is not a system designed to hold officers accountable.”

So what should we do?

Vote no, and let’s come up with a more effective plan for actual civilian oversight.