The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Police departments should no longer be allowed to police themselves

The lack of outside accountability has allowed corruption and abuse to run rampant.

Officers take part in a graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden in New York on Dec. 29, 2015. The New York Police Department has recently come under scrutiny for not disciplining officers. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Recent news about the New York Police Department’s probation files and a secret list of suspect Philadelphia police officers has once again shed light on the lack of police accountability. Departments nationwide have failed to discipline their own in cases of abuse, even, as the NYPD and Philadelphia files reveal, allowing officers who have lied and beaten people to keep their jobs.

The exposure of these files came at the same time that, across the country in Los Angeles, prosecutors declined to charge the officer who shot and killed Jesse Romero, 14, in 2016. The officer is still an active member of the force, having received only a mild reprimand.

These events run counter to the overwhelming attention to police reform spurred by the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the call for greater police accountability and transparency put out by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. But while activists demand greater accountability, police departments are simply re-creating their long history of lax internal discipline. That deep-rooted resistance to reform reveals one of the problems at the heart of policing: The police are left to police themselves.

To understand just how ingrained this problem is, let’s look at the Los Angeles Police Department, which has long been viewed as the nation’s model department for its professionalism and innovative methods. Once considered corrupt for events that culminated in the Rodney King beating, the department made extensive changes — but left intact much of the insular structure of discipline.

The ability of the LAPD to avoid external oversight of its disciplinary procedures rested on City Charter Section 202, a reform made in 1934 that established that authority for disciplinary decisions would rest with the chief of police and a Board of Rights composed of other police officers. Only a police officer could judge another officer. Although the civilian-appointed Board of Police Commissioners had oversight of the department and the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) adjudicated all complaints, the outcomes of IAD investigations were subject to review by the chief.

Within this context, LAPD Police Chief William Parker, who reigned from 1950 to 1966, protected the autonomy of the department from political oversight. He ensured strict adherence to professional standards by punishing officers for poor moral conduct and corrupt behavior, such as graft and taking bribes. Disciplining such conduct reflected Parker’s effort to improve the department’s reputation for corruption. But by imposing strict internal disciplinary practices, Parker also hoped to insulate the department from external meddling from political officials.

Complaints about poor conduct often originated from within the department — reported by other officers and routinely sustained by the IAD. When complaints came from outside the department, however, especially from civilians in cases of police abuse or shootings in communities of color, it was a different story. Parker defended his officers from what he viewed as attempts by agitators to undermine the police.

Under his leadership, the IAD often returned verdicts of justifiable homicide in police shootings and rarely sustained complaints of abuse that came from citizens. In 1965, for example, the department sustained only 5.2 percent of complaints (12 of 231) about the use of excessive force. By contrast, that same year, there were 326 complaints of neglect of duty, an internal charge often made by superior officers, of which 81.2 percent were sustained.

The 1965 Watts uprising and the findings of the McCone Commission, the body set up to investigate the cause of the unrest, demonstrated the need for greater police accountability and created the possibility of reform. It led Los Angeles to create the position of inspector general to monitor complaints made against the department. Yet the inspector general reported directly to the chief of police, leaving the system of internal disciplinary authority intact.

Not much changed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In 1979, for example, none of the 34 officer-involved shootings (not including off-duty officer shootings) led to an indictment. Between 1971 and 1981, in fact, there was only one indictment of an officer for the use of excessive force, which resulted in a not-guilty verdict by the jury. Reports on the administration of internal discipline also demonstrated the focus on sustaining complaints of “Unbecoming Conduct” over complaints of abuse or the use of excessive force.

Department officials routinely absolved officers charged with the use of excessive force or abuse. Deputy Chief Glen Levant, who directed the LAPD’s war on gangs, admitted as much. Between 1986 and 1990, for example, out of 1,988 complaints related to the use of excessive force or improper tactics, only 7.9 percent were sustained. Indeed, Levant believed the complaint and discipline system had “gone to hell.”

The accountability problem rested with department leadership. Supervisors often knew who the most troublesome officers were and recommended disciplinary action. But top brass routinely overturned punishments, especially for excessive use of force. In 1986, a commander concluded that “the unfortunate by-product of [this practice] was that the involved officers were led to believe that their conduct in these matters was acceptable.” Some officers were subsequently involved in nearly identical acts of misconduct. What was needed was a loud and clear message that the department would not tolerate acts of misconduct. Such suggestions went unheeded.

Instead, the city paid settlements in response to lawsuits resulting from excessive use of force. Between 1972 and 1990, individuals filed 15,054 complaints and 5,598 lawsuits against the LAPD, which resulted in the city paying out more than $43 million in claims for the actions of LAPD officers. Such settlements did little to change disciplinary practices within the LAPD, since officers sometimes received disciplinary reprimands but were rarely fired.

The brutal beating of King in 1991 and acquittal of officers a year later — which sparked the Los Angeles rebellion — exposed this lax disciplinary culture. It also created the possibility for reform. Following the unrest in 1992, voters reformed the City Charter to limit the chief of police to two five-year terms. Voters also agreed in 1995 to create a new Office of Inspector General to review IAD findings on behalf of the police commission, in hopes of bringing accountability to the department’s disciplinary procedures.

Yet efforts by the inspector general to initiate investigations of misconduct were routinely resisted by the chief of police, by this time Bernard Parks, who attempted to maintain ultimate authority over officers.

The Rampart scandal in 1997 led to a federal consent decree that brought greater external oversight of the department’s disciplinary procedures. But the decree was lifted in 2013.

Although the district attorney’s office proved the obstacle to prosecution in many cases of officer shootings, including the Jesse Romero case, under Charlie Beck, who became chief in 2009, officers involved in shootings often received a written reprimand or no penalty. Despite the LAPD’s Office of Inspector General‘s authority to investigate complaints of misconduct for the police commission, it still does not have power to impose discipline due to City Charter limitations. As a result, even with Beck’s pending early retirement, the conditions remain in place for officers who engage in misconduct to stay on the force.

The underlying structure of police power and disciplinary authority has not changed significantly in the postwar period. Without a fundamental rethinking of internal disciplinary procedures and the political structures of power that leave police departments with autonomous authority to police their own, continued revelations about departments that leave officers with a history of abusive or violent behavior on the street should not be surprising.