Wednesday, February 15, 2006

It Was Time To Do Something About L.A.'s Police Problems 40 Years Ago

If there's been anything persistent in Los Angeles area life over the past 40 years, it's been police and sheriff's problems. We were in need of reform back in 1965, when I became an L.A. Times reporter, and we still are.

Just in recent weeks, new trouble has erupted in what is, frankly, a history which has consistently been sordid. Los Angeles has had two major riots related in part to problems of poor and/or brutal policing, and the situation in its jails remains a violent one, with many unnecessary inmate deaths and gross mismanagement over the years. Not even the ordinary health of inmates is being adequately cared for.

During all that time, the L.A. Times has backed police reform, although it did so, I believe, more strongly in periods before the present outsider-controlled editorial page staff took over.

Two issues have dominated law enforcement news coverage recently. Both reflect problems that over 40 years have not gone away. Both have a lot to do with racial tensions in a city where they are never absent.

We learn that the Los Angeles Police Commission, a group which has often traditionally been weak on disciplining errant police officers, now wants to stop identifying officers involved in shooting citizens, not to mention a host of other violent offenses. A murky state law is cited as the excuse.

Given the fact that police-involved shootings and beatings over the years have frequently been a cause of some of the worst controversies, this would simply not be a prudent step. To the extent that publicity serves as a deterrent to police violence, and I believe it does, ending the practice of identifying the officers involved could easily lead both to more shootings and poorer investigations of those which do occur. This would be a step, to say the least, in the wrong direction. The paper, I believe, has a civic duty to forcefully oppose it, and we should not rely on a few publicly-spirited minority representatives, such as legislator Gloria Romero, to lead the way. A policy of openness in police shootings and other violence is a need of the whole community.

Also, there have been, in recent weeks, a series of racial fights within the county jail system, which has been mismanaged for a long, long time by the rinky-dink Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office, under the inept Sheriff Lee Baca. There have been deaths in some of these fights.

The County Board of Supervisors has for a considerable time now had a private attorney, Merrick Bobb, monitoring such issues at the Sheriff's Department as a whole and its jail system in particular. Bobb does a good job, but often his reports are not accorded enough attention.

One problem is that the Sheriff's Department has both a policing and jailing function, and young deputies often start their service in the jails. It's not, I feel, the best introduction to law enforcement.

The opinion within the department, which I used to cover part time for the Times, is that Baca is not really up to the job of Sheriff, and the department could be in better hands. Unfortunately, it is usually difficult to defeat an incumbent sheriff at the polls.

In this case, if there are to be improvements, the Board of Supervisors, is going to have to step in and assume a stronger regulatory position, and funding is going to have to be increased. Perhaps, this will not happen without a court order.

There have been far too many instances of violence within the prisons which have not been rectified by the authorities. Some of the issues concerning it are devilishly difficult, such as segregating prisoners of different ethnic groups and keeping the most violent offenders isolated from less violent ones.

Yet doing something about these problems must be a high priority. The Times, as a paper, and other news media in the L.A. area, can help the situation by covering the problems intensively and editorializing for constructive change. But the community as a whole probably needs a new Christopher Commission to reconsider police and Sheriff's reform.

Matt Lait and Scott Glover, the L.A. Times' main investigative reporters on the LAPD, do a good job. They deserve the support of the editorial pages and in the community.

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