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by jubilee shine
Friday, Jun. 01, 2007 at 3:29 AM
it means 'no power'!
Civilians could help keep lawmen in line
If its only contribution were that of 'conscience of the community,' a commission would still be serving a purpose.
May 31, 2007
Los Angeles Times
You may remember a fellow named Rodney King. A parolee, he took cops on a high-speed chase in 1991 that led to his violent arrest, a couple of trials, riots in Los Angeles and upheaval within the LAPD.
You may not remember what happened to the Los Angeles Police Commission, which dived into the middle of the King aftermath and, to its surprise, found out it didn't have as much power as it thought.
A quick overview (oh, let's call it a cautionary tale) might be helpful, though, as the Orange County Board of Supervisors moves ahead in creating a civilian commission to review misconduct complaints against county law enforcement.
Count me as being in favor. I'm so in favor that I suggested in March 1991 that the county do it. Am I bothered that the board waited 16 years to act?
I pounded out that column right after the Rodney King incident went public. I argued that Orange County — then at 2.4 million people — was already urbanizing and that potential abuses by police or Sheriff's Department officers could benefit from citizen review.
The county population now exceeds 3 million, and while a county-created commission wouldn't have jurisdiction over all police departments, the Sheriff's Department polices a dozen cities and various unincorporated areas. Nobody is suggesting that Orange County is a den of police brutality, but the existence of a review board adds a layer of watchfulness that couldn't hurt.
This isn't just a feel-good issue. The details of determining how many members it should have, who they should be and what kind of authority they should have are big-ticket decisions.
Not surprisingly, neither Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas nor Sheriff Mike Carona likes the idea. Law enforcement never wants to be investigated by outsiders, because they're convinced nobody who hasn't been there should pass judgment on them. They don't even like it when courts do it, unless, of course, the courts happen to agree with them.
But they're right in asking for caution. Which brings us back to the Police Commission in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the King incident.
The commission put Police Chief Daryl Gates on paid administrative leave. The L.A. City Council upended that action and reinstated Gates. A court upheld the council's prerogative. Then, voters passed a charter amendment that gave the council greater authority over its commissions, including the Police Commission.
The commission's credibility took a hit. What did it in was a sense that it had become too much a part of the story, too controversial.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that the commission's misfires ended up hurting both itself and the department.
Perhaps that's what Carona and Rackauckas are worried about. If so, they're legitimate concerns.
The supervisors sound like they understand that. Unanimous in wanting the panel, they've given themselves two months to work out the details.
The impulse in some quarters will be to think big. That is, what's the point in having a review board if it doesn't have any authority?
I hear that, but a review board with credible and courageous members wouldn't be impotent. If its only contribution were that of "conscience of the community," the panel would still be serving a purpose.
Of course, the sheriff and D.A. would like nothing better than a commission that couldn't do anything. And, yes, it may be difficult to recruit members who felt they had no real authority.
But, like I said, there's no perception that law enforcement is running amok. What's needed is a stalwart commission unafraid to challenge or criticize law enforcement when necessary. It should focus on brutality or harassment allegations or, as in the case that spurred the current discussion, the death of an inmate in Sheriff Department custody.
If the commission's only "power" would be to point fingers or express outrage, there's nothing wrong with that. After all, the D.A. and the sheriff both are elected and react to public critique.
The way things stand now, the departments typically investigate themselves. We know how that works.
Give me a commission with heavyweights, give them access to police reports and turn them loose.
The sheriff and D.A. should have nothing to worry about. I'll repeat what I wrote in 1991 when I first trotted out the idea: In the best-case scenario, we'd have a civilian commission that never had to meet.
Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his recent columns is at http://www.latimes.com/parsons .
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