Police Civilian Oversight -- A Call for Reform

In this column’s first installment, “Why the Citizen Police Complaint Commission (CPCC) is Inadequate,” we provided several examples of substandard investigative processes, the conflicts of interest that eliminate reasonable checks and balances in governance, the need for the chief of police to have disciplinary authority and city hall’s systemic obstruction of transparency.

In our second installment, “How the Will of the People is Sabotaged” we provided an in-depth examination of the means by which the City Charter has been corrupted, how the failure to hold Charter authorized hearings and the use of closed hearings subvert the law and how a creeping perversion of the system has reduced our unpaid “Independent CPCC Citizen Commissioners” to little more than pawns used in a public relations strategy by city hall to announce findings related to serious allegations of police misconduct as having been investigated by “two completely separate and independent investigations.” A statement that is patently false.

City Hall Deception

During an interview with a CPCC spokesperson it was stated that CPCC investigators are prohibited from interviewing accused or witness police officers, either in the initial stages of an investigation or follow-ups based upon shortcomings discovered during CPCC review of investigations conducted by the police department’s internal affairs division. The spokesperson stated that the practice was prohibited by law and cited government code sections 3300-3313 (the Peace Officers Bill of Rights) as the authority.

The statement made no sense. A quality investigation cannot occur if those investigating are barred from interviewing the accused or any witness involved in the alleged misconduct. It would be unfair to both the accused officer and the complainant. Subsequent review of the government code by this writer revealed there is no such prohibition.

Follow up interviews with other knowledgeable sources revealed that civilian investigators have in fact been contracted by the city in the past to conduct internal investigations for the police department, which included officer interviews.

When confronted with this evidence the spokesperson replied: “I have no additional information to offer at this time regarding the CPCC not interviewing the officers.”

A public records request subsequently confirmed that the city currently employs three civilian investigators – two in the city managers office assigned to the CPCC and one assigned to the police department’s internal affairs division, working under a police commander and lieutenant along with six police sergeants.

Since making these discoveries this writer interviewed an individual who recently lodged a complaint with LBPD Internal Affairs for theft of money, false arrest and malicious prosecution.

The complainant stated that the civilian investigator holding the police internal affairs position interviewed him. The civilian investigator confirmed to him that she also interviewed both the accused and witness police officers involved in the complaint.

This exposure makes it clear that, once again, those within city hall authorized to speak for the CPCC system continue to perpetuate the myth that our citizen commissioners appointed to provide civilian oversight cannot by law use their assigned investigators to ensure quality investigations and that the commissioners themselves are prohibited from conducting their deliberations in a public forum – as intended and required by the city charter.

The preservation of systemic impunity that ensures the absence of transparency provides a huge political advantage for an entrenched bureaucracy. But it does nothing to achieve the reforms intended by the people of Long Beach when they passed the Charter amendment establishing the CPCC 25 years ago in response to scandals of racially motivated police brutality, bad shootings and costly law suits; the same backdrop that has generated today’s rallies for justice in Long Beach – and across the Nation.
So, what do we the people do about it?

Rebuilding the Public Trust

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Public sentiment is everything. With it nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.”

Building and maintaining community trust is the cornerstone of successful policing and law enforcement. The ethical work of our many good police officers is easily undone by the actions of one unethical officer, or the obfuscation of misconduct by those who hide behind contrived interpretations of the law in order to subvert transparency and public accountability.

We need a system of civilian oversight that celebrates the kind of transparency that will eliminate the cover up of management failures and cozy police union relationships that cross the boundary of negotiation for fair wages and working conditions.

We need a system that 1) supports the integrity of our police officers that consistently deliver a professional job of constitutional policing, 2) rehabilitates those in need of training and 3) weeds out those who are unfit.

...and...

We need a system that places the integrity of quality internal investigations above the influence of systemic political strategies cloaked in unwritten legal opinions that protect the bureaucracy from civil law suits that may expose management incompetence or dishonest political relationships.

How Do We Get Such a System?

The Long Beach Chief of Police currently reports to the city manager who is the final authority for police discipline as well as the policy authority over all police operations. In the first column of this series we wrote:

“The Long Beach constituent has no opportunity to learn what the city manager views as misconduct or what he chooses to conceal from public view. We also have no idea if his decisions conflict with those of the chief of police, the law enforcement professional who provides the public face for the police department and yet has no disciplinary authority over department employees.”

An essential element to reform the unworkable system of police civilian oversight in Long Beach begins by answering two questions:

1) Who should have authority over police discipline and,
2) who should have policy authority over the police department?

First, we need to acknowledge who is best qualified to make disciplinary decisions for police department employees.

Having 20 years of police experience and many of those years with direct responsibilities for the investigation, analysis, recommendation and adjudication stages of police misconduct investigations; my vote goes to the chief of police.

I say this not only because of a police chief’s experience coming up though the ranks, but because no one should be held fully accountable for the management of a police organization as large and diverse as Long Beach without having disciplinary authority.

Let’s Make Credentials Comparisons:

The Long Beach City Manager holds credentials very much like those held by most city managers in California. He has an MBA from California State University, Dominguez Hills; a Masters Degree in Recreation Administration from California State University, Los Angeles; and a BA Degree in Social Sciences from the University of California, Irvine. He started as a lifeguard, became the assistant director of a recreational instruction program at UCLA and worked for the City of Paramount as a parks and recreational director; community development director and executive director of the city redevelopment agency; and city manager. In 2005 he was appointed as director of community development and later became executive director of the redevelopment agency in Long Beach until he became our city manager in September 2007.

The current chief of police joined the Long Beach Police Department in 1985 and came up through the ranks, like most major city chiefs. His advanced education includes the FBI’s National Executive Institute, FBI National Academy training, Master of Public Administration (MPA) and Bachelor of Vocational Education (BVE), degrees from California State University, Long Beach and graduation from the Harvard University Senior Executives in State and Local Government program as well as the Delinquency Control Institute at the University of Southern California. His Long Beach Police Department work history includes operational as well as administrative assignments including patrol, special weapons and tactics (SWAT), homicide, drug, and gang investigations, canine operations, communications and fiscal management in addition to extensive experience in disaster and emergency preparedness, terrorism considerations, critical incident management, and the development of effective problem solving strategies in accordance with proven community oriented public safety and governance philosophies.

In this writers opinion – and experience – the logic of management 101 puts disciplinary authority in the hands of the chief of police – so long as it is balanced with strong civilian oversight.

In this series we have shown how the current CPCC system of civilian oversight has been rendered ineffective and meaningless. But, even if the current CPCC charter provision had not been eviscerated over the years, the concept of true civilian oversight still would have never been achieved though the reforms made in 1990.

Why?

Because the insider crafting of the original charter amendment did not give CPCC commissioners the authority to hire and fire its own staff or access police personnel records and because the core idea of having two independent internal investigative units investigating the same complaint is an unworkable and irrationally expensive duplication of city personnel resources.

Effective civilian oversight will never become a reality unless a diverse and manageable number of independent citizen commissioners are given the power and authority to hire and fire the chief of police, hire and fire an inspection and audit staff and exercise policy authority over the police department.

How Do We Get That Done?

A new amendment to the city charter is required. City hall insiders cannot draft it, because neither the bureaucracy, the elected city attorney nor a council majority has the will to change the status quo. Change will come about only if the people deem it urgent and necessary.

Establish a Citizen’s Blue Ribbon Commission

A blue ribbon citizen’s commission is the only means by which the LBPD can be lifted from the dark ages of an obsolete city bureaucracy.

The commission should be a privately funded diverse group of Long Beach residents supported by the advice and research of leading experts in the fields of police-community relations, governance policy, transparency and civilian oversight backed by a team of distinguished legal experts to craft a tamper proof initiative.

The work of the citizen’s blue ribbon commission would be to produce a reform initiative to amend the city charter, administer the collection of the required number of signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot and oversee a campaign designed to educate the Long Beach electorate as to what the ballot initiative will mean to the quality of life in Long Beach.

At a minimum the private citizens commission should produce charter changes that accomplish the following:

* The authority, powers and duties of the police department are defined in the city charter.

* The chief of police is given disciplinary authority over all members of the police department subject to civil service or court appeal.

* The chief of police is made subordinate to a board of five unpaid Long Beach citizen police commissioners, selected by the mayor.
The board of police commissioners is empowered to function independently as the policy head of the police department.

* The mayor’s appointment of police commissioners is subject to city council ratification.

* The board of police commissioners has hire-and-fire authority for its support staff, which shall include an executive director and an inspector general.

* The chief of police is hired from a list of three candidates selected by the police commission and forwarded to the mayor. The mayor must select from the list of three with the selection being subject to city council confirmation.

* The chief of police should be hired under contract for a five-year period, subject to renewal by the police commission for one additional five-year period and no longer.

* The city council should have the power to remove the chief of police by a two-thirds vote.

* Once in place, the commission should review all current police use of force, training and operation policies and make all adjustments necessary to foster a contemporary, thorough, transparent and effective system for maintaining a level of discipline and professionalism that inspires public confidence in its police department.

The reality remains; there will not be meaningful reform in the LBPD unless the culture in city hall is changed. The culture will not change unless the structure of the city charter is changed and our unpaid civilian commissioners are empowered to become more than the public relations pawns they are today.