Lead Story Local News West Edition

Police Commission has limited oversight role under charter

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Police Commission has gained a higher profile in recent weeks due to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and a newly appointed commissioner, but the civilian oversight panel illustrates how visibility is not the same as understanding.

“People need to understand it is an oversight body, but with limited control,” said Lisa Graziano, an associate professor for the School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics at Cal State Los Angeles.

It does not mean the commission does not serve a purpose or is not a useful entity, Graziano said, because it does bring transparency into investigations and police operations.

The Police Commission acts as a board of directors for the Police Department while setting policies and overseeing its operations.

However, the president of the panel explained the commission only has one employee, and that is the police chief.

“We’re a board of directors for the Police Department, not the policemen,” Steve Soboroff told The Wave in an earlier interview. “The police chief is the operating officer for conduct and policy.”

Soboroff, an entrepreneur, is part of the five-person panel consisting of nonprofit organizer Sandra Figueroa-Villa; law professors Kathleen Kim and Robert M. Saltzman; and the newly appointed attorney Matthew M. Johnson, who is filling a seat vacated by Paula Madison, a former executive for NBC4.

Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed the commissioners, except Saltzman who was originally appointed by former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2007, but Garcetti selected him to stay on board.

Over the summer, a public uproar occurred when the commissioners and Police Chief Charlie Beck independently concluded their investigations into the fatal officer-involved-shooting of Ezell Ford.

While Beck found that Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas were in policy during the fatal encounter with the 25-year-old mentally-ill man, the panel rejected his findings and ruled otherwise.

The Ford investigation demonstrated the limited role in power the panel has when it comes to disciplining officers.

“We determine if an officer was in or not in policy. We review the case and determine the tactics and use of weapon and the police chief determines discipline,” Soboroff said.

However, Beck has the final say when it comes to discipline, should the officers face any.

In a wave of backlashes to come following the Ford investigation, Executive Director Richard Tefank, along with the commissioners faced public scrutiny when it was announced the board would review a list of decorum proposals after flare-ups with Black Lives Matter activists continued to disrupt meetings.

Last month, the activists disrupted two Police Commission meetings in a row. The first demonstration commemorated the one-year anniversary of the Ford shooting, while the second protest addressed the fatal shooting of Redel Jones in the Crenshaw area.

The heated exchanges between the Police Commission and activists often led to arguments, which forced the panel to take a recess.

Activists and civil rights lawyers said the proposals violated protected free speech and public open meeting laws.

Tefank later said he would bring the recommendations back “as it is currently drafted or revised” during the Sept. 15 commission meeting.

Still, the commission continued to make headlines when Johnson’s appointment met strong disapproval from community activists, who say there is little civilian input for a board that is meant to serve the interests of the public.

“[Garcetti] has moved forward with the appointment of another wealthy campaign donor who has no background in public safety work,” Melina Abudallah, lead organizer for Black Lives Matter, wrote on her Facebook page. “This is but another example of Mayor Garcetti’s constant disrespect of the black community.”

Black Lives Matter demonstrators had proposed that community activist Aqeela Sherrills be appointed to the commission, rather than Johnson, at one of the disrupted meetings.

“They’re speaking to the wrong body,” Tefank said. “The Police Commission has no role in the [appointment] process.”

The mayor appoints the commissioners, who must be confirmed by the City Council, according to the Los Angeles Charter and Administrative Code.

The scrutiny comes two years after federal oversight, also known as a consent decree, was removed for the LAPD. The oversight was ordered by the U.S Department of Justice after it was discovered that officers at the Rampart Division committed a long series of misconduct that included tampering with evidence and physically abusing suspects.

Not only is the commission meant to provide oversight to the Police Department, it is also a liaison between the public and police department.

“I would like the commissioners to ask question and raise concerns that they’re not raising,” Graziano said.

For example, she said, the policy for body cameras is a problem.

“I don’t like that officers are allowed to review the footage before writing a report. That’s something I would have questioned and probed around to see if people felt comfortable with.”

But Tefank said the policy for body cameras follows the same rules as dash cameras in police vehicles.

“I believe the officers are going to do the right thing and be truthful,” he said.

For Tefank, a former policeman and police chief of two departments, the commission is not completely without power.

“The situation that we’re in now — law enforcement using excessive forces in [minority] communities — is being aware of the concerns of the communities, being responsive and ensuring the department develops trust and a relationship despite incidents that impact the community.”