All-civilian discipline panels are more lenient with LAPD officers, report finds

All-civilian discipline panels are more lenient with LAPD officers, report finds

Los Angeles Police Department officials said Tuesday that they will ask the City Council to reconsider a rule that allows officers accused of serious misconduct to have civilians decide their discipline — after a report found they routinely hand down lenient punishments.

The lighter discipline issued by all-civilian hearing panels undercuts Chief Michel Moore‘s ability to run the LAPD and to hold officers accountable when they are found to have committed major offenses such as lying, according to the report by the LAPD’s inspector general, Mark Smith.

The findings reflect an “imbalance of power” between Moore and the hearing panels that “significantly undermines the ability of the Department to police itself,” the report said.

“A system that allows for the outright and unchallengeable overruling of a Chief’s disciplinary decisions detracts from the Department’s appropriate efforts in furtherance of internal accountability,” the report said.

Under the LAPD’s discipline system, the chief does not have the power to fire an officer. When the chief believes firing is necessary, the officer is entitled to a hearing before a three-person panel, called a board of rights. The hearings are mini-trials in which the officer and department officials present evidence and call witnesses. An officer can also request a board hearing to challenge a suspension or demotion issued by the chief.

Until 2019, the 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 opt to have their cases heard by an all-civilian board.

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

With more officers opting for hearings in front of all-civilian panels, the share of cases in which boards handed down lighter penalties than Moore had called for increased from 55% in 2019 to 76% in 2021, according to the inspector general’s report. The review looked into 90 board of rights hearings between September 2019 and December 2021.

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

One reason for the imbalance, the report said, was that department advocates, who serve in a role akin to prosecutor at the hearings, often lack formal legal training, leaving them at a disadvantage against attorneys who represent officers in the increasingly litigious proceedings. The department advocates fare particularly badly in front of all-civilian panels, which tend to demand the two sides submit written arguments and follow other trial-like procedures, the report found.

The department has asked for money in its 2023-2024 budget proposal to hire five attorneys who would focus solely on such disciplinary hearings — one of the handful of recommendations made in the report.

The report, which was presented to the Police Commission during its virtual meeting Tuesday, confirmed an inspector general’s audit released last year that found hearing panels made up entirely of civilians were more likely than panels with law enforcement representatives to overturn harsher discipline.

“The officers are attempting to find their best opportunity for leniency,” Moore said during Tuesday’s hearing. “That is a natural response and one that I would understand.”

Police Commissioner Eileen Decker said she found the review’s conclusions “deeply disturbing.”

“There’s no other place where the odds of getting a lower court’s ruling reversed are as high as this process,” said Decker, a onetime assistant U.S. attorney.

Deputy LAPD Chief Michael Rimkunas said later in the meeting that the department intended to send a letter to the City Council asking it to revisit Measure C, but did not elaborate. Officials also announced an update to the department’s board of rights manual, and their intention to start publishing the names of panelists and their decisions on the Police Commission’s website.

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

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

This, some felt, led to scenarios in which an all-civilian panel would reject the proposed firing of an officer who, for instance, was caught lying on the job, without understanding that an officer with tainted credibility cannot effectively testify in court against people they arrest.

“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,” the review found.

The report drew a strong rebuke from the officers’ union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which suggested that 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 that the report was “clearly written to elicit a more punitive approach” and that it omitted important context about legitimate reasons review panels might have for recommending a lesser penalty.

Both civilian and traditional panels seemed to give special weight to the testimony of other officers, the inspector general’s report said.

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 a demotion in rank, the report said, after an LAPD captain testified on the officer’s behalf, telling the board that the officer would continue to be an asset to the department despite their alcoholism.

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