Working to make police watchdogs independent

After resignation of first civilian inspector general, L.A. redefines the position.

It is a saga that remains unresolved years after L.A. motorist Rodney King was beaten by police in March 1991.

In a case being monitored closely by police-reform groups nationwide, the Los Angeles Police Department - whose missteps made headlines during urban riots in 1992 and O.J. Simpson's trial in 1994-95 - is again wrestling openly with the key issue raised by all three debacles: How can a city keep an eye on its own cops? More specifically - how can it ensure independent civilian scrutiny?

The issue is coming to a head again here for two reasons. Just three years after voters implemented sweeping police reforms, moves are afoot to revise the Los Angeles City Charter - including how to recast the relationship of police department, mayor, and City Council. At the same time, the LAPD's first civilian inspector general - appointed to investigate complaints about police misconduct - has resigned amid controversy and confusion over her role.

"A whole nation's worth of police departments is watching this closely to see how L.A. resolves the problem of how to ensure that it has legitimate, civilian oversight," says Mary Powers of the National Coalition on Police Accountability.

After the beating of Mr. King and the civil disturbances that erupted when the officers were acquitted, public outcries against police brutality escalated nationwide and dozens of civilian review boards were born. But many have folded or lost power, Ms. Powers says, because of lack of public support or the rise of police unions.

"Police brutality has not changed, while the public mechanisms to check it have petered out," she says. "L.A. has a chance to provide a model ... on how it can be done."

Concerns have also arisen that the LAPD's civilian oversight board, the Police Commission, might be wavering in its commitment to monitor complaints against officers. Such complaints triggered the public furor that led to the 1991 Christopher Commission Report, which built in the inspector general role as a key reform.

But the Nov. 11 resignation of the city's first inspector general, Katherine Mader, has deflated the hopes of many. Shortly after announcing her resignation, Ms. Mader said the Police Commission had undermined her position and the public was being misled into thinking the job was truly independent.

"I spent 2-1/2 years trying to act out my notion of what an inspector general was and to give the public what they thought they were voting for," says Mader. "Unfortunately, without any charter language to back up what I was doing, it was not [easy]."

Neither Mader nor the police commissioners are speaking specifically about the resignation because of a possible lawsuit.

But in public comments Mader and others have cited a need to delineate chains of command and authority.

Unresolved are whether inspector generals can initiate investigations of their own, at what point of a disciplinary hearing they have access to investigative materials, and whether complainants - and evidence - can be kept confidential.

Mader complained she was shown materials concerning disciplinary actions after the fact, making additional or different actions implausible.

Mader also felt she could not protect the identity of sources.

One of the most controversial points is how much authority a new inspector general will have to initiate investigations without approval of the Police Commission. Such investigations might range from alleged police misconduct against citizens to misdeeds by the commissioners themselves.

"It is clear to us that the inspector general role was not intended ... to be something akin to an independent prosecutor who could decide what to look at by themselves," says T. Warren Jackson, vice president of the Police Commission.

As that matter is taken up in hearings by charter commissioners, how to balance concerns of the public and the police will be paramount, observers say.

"Checks and balances need to be created in which any investigation the inspector general wants to pursue but is stifled by the commission should be made public," says Indira Raichoudhury, executive director of the police review board in Pittsburgh. But "the commission must be able to rein in an inspector general so they can't go on endlessly."

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