There’s never a shortage of headlines about the Los Angeles Police Department. Since the start of 2023, three people died during or after encounters with the city’s officers, there was the strange and speedy reappointment of Chief Michael Moore to another term atop 9,236 sworn personnel, and a kerfuffle bubbled up over whether a $278,000 robot dog named Spot should be added to the force’s arsenal made plenty of news.
Now, another matter is surfacing—though it’s no electronic pooch. This one involves something called the Board of Rights. Don’t let the phrase put you to sleep—the combat could be fierce, potentially pitting high-up elected officials against a police union used to getting its way. Ultimately, the situation involves what kind of discipline the LAPD chief can dole out and how frequently his attempts to punish offending cops get rejected.
The impetus for the discussion was the Jan. 7 killing of Tyre Nichols by a quintet of Memphis police officers. Less than two weeks after the brutal assault by members of the department’s SCORPION team, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis fired the officers; they’re now facing second-degree murder charges.
If a similar situation unfolded in L.A., Moore would not be able to move as swiftly and decisively as Davis. William Briggs, the president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the department, brought up the topic at its meeting on Tuesday, telling those on the Zoom meeting that he’d asked Moore why the chief himself could not terminate cops in such a situation.
“He responded that under the Los Angeles City Charter, he has only the power to recommend that an officer be fired,” said Briggs, who seemed to grow angrier. “And then it is up to the Board of Rights panel after a hearing to either adopt that recommendation or impose a lesser penalty.”
There are a lot of tentacles here, but Briggs got to the heart of the matter: various machinations, years of lobbying, and a sneaky election have left L.A. in a situation where an LAPD chief’s decision to discipline an officer can be followed by an appeals process, aka the Board of Rights hearing. And since mid-2019, cops facing the hammer (and those officers’ attorneys) have had the choice of picking the composition of the three-person panel: They can select the ones with the harsh reputation or the one that history shows is super lenient.
Guess which one most cops pick and you could win an imaginary police pony.
The LAPD Board of Rights process is a well-intentioned checks-and-balances practice that dates to the 1930s. A change came in 1992 when the panels became a mix of two high-ranking department personnel (captain or above) and one civilian. The system more or less worked. So naturally, steps were taken to blow it up 25 years later.
In May 2017, Measure C went before city voters. It was the first step in a process that would allow cops accused of misconduct to pick either the traditional Board of Rights, or one composed of three civilians, selected from a list of pre-qualified members of the public.
Who wanted this? Primarily the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the powerful union representing rank-and-file officers. Why? Because civilian panels, it turns out, were known to be more lenient than traditional panels. This might seem counter-intuitive—given the current take on law enforcement, many people would expect that civilians view offending officers harshly and would dish out severe punishments. But a November report by the LAPD’s inspector general confirms what others previously found—civilian panels tend to go lighter and reduce sentences. And once they do, the chief has no resources.
This sounds like in-the-weeds stuff, but alarms were sounded. In May 2017 I penned a Los Angeles Downtown News editorial against the proposal, writing, “Police reform and discipline are serious, and Measure C is seriously wrong.” That was cool-headed compared with the Los Angeles Times, which produced two anti-C articles, including one where the headline called it “a noxious sleight of hand.”
A batch of civic groups also urged a No vote. But all this was little steam against an effort propelled by the union, which asserted that change was necessary because high-ranking department personnel were fearful of going against their chief. The union claimed in mailers that the effort would “improve community and police relations.”
In addition to a significant fundraising advantage, Measure C was supported by heavy hitters including Mayor Eric Garcetti and Council President Herb Wesson. Then there was the carefully chosen timing: Garcetti had won a second term in the March primary, meaning relatively few eligible voters would hit the polls in May, providing an advantage for the union. The gamesmanship worked—turnout was a lame 10.7%. Measure C passed.
The new process went into effect in 2019 after the City Council—full of members supported by the LAPPL—passed an ordinance.
Have things gone as badly as feared? Actually, they’re worse. The inspector general found that the percentage of Board of Rights panels overturning a chief’s recommendation for discipline has been soaring. In 2018, 51 percent of the panels found an officer not guilty or reduced the chief’s recommendation. In 2021, that reached 76 percent.
This wreaks havoc on Moore’s ability to punish wayward officers. A portion of the report reads, “Sometimes, in cases involving the most egregious types of misconduct, this means that the Chief has no choice but to retain an officer whom the Chief has already determined is no longer fit to perform the essential duties of a peace officer and should be terminated from employment with the Department.”
An L.A. Times story published in the wake of the inspector general report noted that the union found it one-sided and believed the report sought to give the chief too much disciplinary power.
All of this leads to the current question of what would happen if a Nichols-type situation occurred in Los Angeles. Could Moore fire any offending officers? Or would his suggestions be watered down during the review process, with questionable cops remaining on the force?
That’s the battleground. Briggs wants the all-civilian panels to be scotched, but doing so is beyond his power.
“I now call upon the City Council members to move swiftly in rescinding the ordinance that permits all-civilian Board of Rights panels,” he said on Tuesday.
What will the Council do? The panel has recently gained some members who, to put it kindly, are highly skeptical of anything involving the LAPD. However, there remains a sizable contingent of elected officials dedicated to preserving the LAPD as is, a feeling that reflects the desires of their constituents. Additionally, the LAPPL can be a force come election time, able to spend six or seven figures to support favored candidates or bash opponents. That matters, especially with a primary coming just 13 months from now. Seven City Council seats are in play.
Mayor Karen Bass is the one to watch as the process unfolds. She just gave her approval to extend Moore’s tenure and in November she won the election despite the police union spending millions on her opponent, Rick Caruso. She would prefer good relations with the union. Yet she owes the LAPPL nothing.
How the lines will be drawn in this battler is still unclear. But one thing is for sure—it’s gonna get loud.
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