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Wesson, Price back changes in police discipline procedure

LOS ANGELES — A city councilman took the first step toward crafting a ballot measure that would ask voters to decide whether Los Angeles police officers facing disciplinary action should have the option of putting their fates in the hands of a panel of civilians, rather than a board consisting of top department officials who answer to the police chief.

A motion introduced by City Council President Herb Wesson, and seconded by Councilmen Joe Buscaino and Curren Price, calls for staffers to report back on “options for a May 2017 ballot measure” that would make changes to the city charter to give officers the ability to go before an all-civilian board.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing rank-and-file officers, has been in talks with the council president and the mayor’s office over the past several months about changing the police department’s disciplinary review process.

Union spokesman Dustin DeRollo told City News Service the idea behind the civilian-only board is that its members would “have essentially no vested interest in the department,” making the option potentially a “fairer way to do things.”

There is a perception that given their role in the department, command staff may have conflicts of interest when doling out discipline.

The union’s president, Craig Lally, said the Board of Rights system is “archaic” and there are not many other cities in the country that have captains or other command-level officials sitting on such disciplinary panels.

The department’s system “has been broken probably for 50 years and officers perceive it as unfair,” and “pretty much corrupted,” he said.

Critics of civilian panels say non-law-enforcement members potentially lack expertise in police work and may actually be more lenient. But Lally maintained that civilian members are fairer, and will “listen to the evidence — there’s no personalities involved.”

“Obviously, they’re never going to know the officer or have contact with the officer,” and there is “nobody who can potentially call the civilian and say ‘Hey, we want these guys fired,’ like the chief, who has the ability to do that,” he said.

The change to a civilian system would not necessarily take the disciplinary system into entirely unfamiliar territory, according to Lally, since there is an existing pool of civilians who sit on the current Board of Rights panel. Many of the civilian members are lawyers, Lally said.

The department’s existing disciplinary process has long been a contentious issue, with promises to change the system a common refrain among candidates who run for the union’s board of directors.

While the union’s efforts to change the disciplinary process has long had the support of city leaders, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, the idea for the civilian panel did not gain “traction” until the union filed a lawsuit against the city in May, according to Lally.

That lawsuit alleged that Chief Charlie Beck has undue influence on the command members of the Board of Rights, which consists of two top-ranking police officials and one civilian member.

In their lawsuit, union officials proposed that the Board of Rights panel should consist entirely of civilian members. They referred to the examples of four lawsuits filed by police captains who contend they were retaliated against for disagreeing with Beck’s disciplinary recommendations.

According to Wesson’s motion, a ballot measure would ask voters whether officers should be given the option of being reviewed by a panel made up entirely of civilian members. The proposed alternative to the Board of Rights would be in place for three years, during which its “effectiveness, fairness, transparency” and other “factors” would be assessed, according to the motion.

If the council moves forward with the motion at a future meeting, the chief legislative analyst would be asked to work with the city attorney and the city administrative officer to return in 15 days with a report on the potential ballot measure.