Let’s Put It Into Perspective
In an effort to conduct Los Angeles Police Department business in the most transparent way we can, the Department routinely releases information to the public and to media outlets. This is especially important when the information released is required under the conditions of the Consent Decree. Although our intent is to be as open as possible, sometimes in a rush to interpret the information, the media offers comparative analysis that is neither sound nor logical. Such is the case in the release of the Department’s 2005 Annual Complaint Report.
The Annual Complaint Report is a summary of internal and external complaints. It is one of several auditing tools and resources we use to monitor employees and ensure quality police service. Such practices speak to our commitment to fostering public trust through transparency. The report complements existing Department safeguards including Training Evaluation and Management System (TEAMS); civilian oversight by the Police Commission and its investigative arm, the Inspector General’s office, and audit operations by Internal Affairs.
When the Annual Complaint Report was released last month and presented to the Police Commission, the news media emphasized discrepancies in numbers between 2005 and the previous year. Headlines read “Complaints Up, Discipline Down,” and media analysis of the report created the perception that complaints had risen and disciplinary action declined because we are unwilling to “police the police.”
So let me try and put this into some kind of context for everyone, a difficult thing when we are dealing with lots of numbers over lots of years and with a lot of variables.
Here is a table that shows the number of complaints that came in, the number of complaints that were sustained, and the number that were closed.
When you compare 2005, with an intake of 6,520 complaints, to the 6,471 in 2004, there is an increase: 49 complaints. In my opinion, hardly headline material. In fact, when you look just at public complaints, our overall number dropped by 34. When you factor in the number of police/public contacts, which number in the millions, 6,520 filed complaints barely registers as one percent. If you look at the resolution of those complaints after they are investigated, roughly 20 to 25 percent of the total are sustained or proven to be true. From my perspective, and as most cops understand, the more we engage with the public—the more arrests we make, the more FIs and traffic citations we write—the more opportunities there are for conflict, dissatisfaction and public complaints. We may strive to make our contacts positive and helpful, but aggressive, self-initiated policing that drives down crime in this City to historic lows can in itself create a rise in complaints.
Comparing fewer disciplinary actions from one year to the next is also a problem when complaints received in one calendar year may not close in that same year. Occasionally, they may take up to two years to clear. Cases can be delayed for a number of reasons including pending Board of Rights findings, criminal filing decisions by the District Attorney’s Office or pending civil litigation. That said, the information in the Annual Complaint Report does not represent patterns of misconduct over a specific reporting year. One of the reasons that the 2004 figures on discipline are high, which make the 2005 figures look low, is the fact that a concerted effort was made in 2004 to clear a backlog of complaints from the previous year. The media analysis, which never mentioned that they were comparing different totals, was that the Department is reluctant to punish officers found guilty of misconduct and so discipline is down.
Although lower disciplinary figures from one year to the next can appear troubling if the public perceives heavyhanded and unfair enforcement, fewer disciplinary actions is my goal. From my perspective, it shows that cops are doing their jobs well: compassionately, consistently, and constitutionally. Cops who are doing their jobs as they are trained to do require little corrective action and receive fewer penalties.
We are doing the right thing in regard to discipline through a multipronged approach. No good cop wants to work with a bad cop. No good cop wants a bad cop in their Department and especially not our beloved LAPD. So we want to focus our internal affairs efforts against that small group of officers who do engage in misconduct.
How do we do that? First, we want every complaint. You must take every complaint and we, as a Department, must document every complaint. To my knowledge we are the only police department in the United States that “tests” whether we are in fact taking complaints. But taking complaints and documenting them just leads us to the second prong of our system.
With the Police Commission, we created a non-disciplinary catalog of result. If after taking the complaint and investigating it, we determine that it is not valid or not misconduct, we can close it as non-disciplinary in nature. Currently, we close almost 40% of our complaints as non-disciplinary. But remember, even non-disciplinary does not automatically mean that we were pleased with an officer’s actions. What it means is that the officer’s conduct did not warrant a disciplinary investigation and sanction. When we find that an officer’s conduct is lacking but not misconduct, we are taking remedial actions. We then have the ability to focus our investigative efforts on the matters that are more likely to bring us to problem officers, the ones who we do not want in our Department.
Thirdly, we have dramatically reduced the number of Boards of Rights (BOR) that we direct officers to by clarifying our approach to discipline. The intent of discipline is to change behavior. I have adopted the approach that if a 22-day suspension (the maximum I can impose without a BOR) will not modify your behavior, then you probably should not be a member of the LAPD. Our directed BORs have gone from 121 in 2002, to 68 in 2003, to 29 in 2004, and 53 in 2005. These are historical lows.
The results are also historic: if found guilty, the penalty is much more likely to be a removal. So everyone should know that if you are directed to a BOR, it can be, and oftentimes is, a true effort to remove an officer from the Department. We are focusing our efforts on those few among us who should not have the right to wear our badge and uniform. The table on page 7 represents the number of BORs held in each year that were directed by the Chief of Police and Removals resulting from them.
Finally, playing a small but critical role in the multi-pronged approach to discipline, and in reducing BOR cases, is the concept of settling cases. In 2003, we adopted a practice followed by virtually every single department in this state: we allow for the settlement of some—let me stress that, some—discipline cases. Since 2003, out of almost 20,000 complaints, we have settled less than 280 cases. What is significant about this is that a number of them, if not settled, would have ended up in officers opting for BORs. It is a very small number and we only do it after a great deal of review, discussion, and agreement. This small number of cases over the past three years has had a positive impact for both the involved officers and the Department. It allows an officer to accept responsibility for their actions and allows the Department to document corrective measures, while getting the officer back to work quickly.
As this organization continues to change and improve, representative data and official reports will often reflect anomalies and inconsistencies. I expect that. “Business as usual” is no more, and trends will shift dramatically as this organization continues to redefine itself. We have seen the notable downward shift in our crime numbers. We are now witnessing shifts in other areas as well.
In closing let me be very clear: I have no tolerance for intentional misconduct and will deal with it very harshly. I have proven that over the past three years. However, I understand that sometimes policing isn’t pretty and there is little if any time for reflection and discussion before action. I understand that wellintentioned police officers can and will make mistakes and I will give them the benefit of the doubt. We will continue to move forward, we will continue to treat and prevent misconduct by providing training, good supervision, and great leadership. And when we find misconduct, we will deal with it swiftly, forcefully, and aggressively.