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Study of LAPD’s civilian disciplinary boards offers critical look into how they operate

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The secretive, all-civilian panels charged with determining discipline against Los Angeles police officers accused of misconduct are often chaired not by those familiar with the rules — instead, many times they’re chaired by real estate agents.

That’s according to internal LAPD investigators tasked with studying how the three-member bodies, called Board of Rights panels, operate. The panels, according to city rules, are the ultimate arbiters for disciplining officers, with powers outranking even the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

At times, the civilians making up a Board of Rights panel have refused to make judgments even though LAPD policies said they should, said Detectives Marc Furniss at the Tuesday, Nov. 22 Police Commission meeting.

Those civilians, whose names are not released to the public, effectively rendered the department’s rules for employee conduct unenforceable.

“We’ve had a lot of pushback from the various civilians, some of which have law degrees and are attorneys, but a lot of times we have real estate agents and architects, and what not, on these boards,” Furniss told the commissioners.

“So, some of them have been putting a lot of their personal opinion into it.”

A review of the all-civilian panels, presented Tuesday by Furniss and others working with LAPD’s Inspector General’s Office, peeled back a layer of secrecy around how the panels work after they were first adopted in 2019. That year, the City Council approved the new rules, and Mayor Eric Garcetti signed the ordinance.

The ordinance was based on voter-backed Measure C, which in 2017 gave officers accused of misconduct who want to appeal their discipline the option of choosing Board of Rights panels chaired by two LAPD commanders and a civilian, or a panel with three civilians.

The intent of adding more civilians to Board of Rights hearings was to make them more transparent and fair following years of reporting that LAPD’s internal disciplinary process was heavily tilted in favor of officers. But last year, Mark Smith, the inspector general, said he found the all-civilian panels were more likely to override disciplinary decisions and reduce punishments: In more than 70% of the cases they saw, the civilian panelists reduced penalties for the officers.

Over the last two years, Furniss said he found that in some cases the all-civilian panels were invalidating LAPD policy.

“We’ve had a couple board members recently where they basically told us they don’t believe in the term ‘unbecoming conduct,’” he said. “And they told the department if we can’t show them the policy or procedure that is violated, they won’t find (the officer) guilty.

“Of course that’s unheard of,” Furniss said. “‘Unbecoming conduct’ is designed to cover all the types of conduct we don’t specifically have a policy or procedure for. The board refused to accept it.”

The department recently has used unbecoming conduct charges to discipline officers accused of a variety of offenses, like making racist comments and sharing racist images with coworkers, displaying violent behavior during 2020’s George Floyd protests, and firing their sidearms while drinking alcohol off-duty.

Officers appear to have noticed that the civilian panels are more lenient. In 2022, officers who the chief of police recommended for discipline exclusively chose the all-civilian panels, entirely bypassing the panels with sworn department members.

“Where am I getting information that it’s higher recently than 90%, almost close to 100%, (that officers) are choosing the all-civilian panels?” Commissioner Steve Soboroff asked in Tuesday’s meeting.

“For 2022, yes, it is 100% of the time that officers are electing for civilian, the three-civilian alternative to the board,” Furniss said moments later.

“The only time we’re still seeing sworn boards is when the officer fails to come in and select a board within the time limit. And it becomes the chief’s pick at that time, at which time Chief (Michel) Moore would randomly pick the names. Those are the only times we’re seeing sworn boards in 2022.”

For years, Moore has sought to claw back the power to fire officers from the Board of Rights panels. On Tuesday, he called these hearings “quasi-judicial.”

Smith stopped short in 2021 of recommending changes to the process. But this week, with more hearings analyzed, he said he found serious issues with the all-civilian panels.

According to his report, the department typically starts at a disadvantage: Most times, the officers have union-paid attorneys representing them in hearings, while LAPD only has sworn officers presenting evidence. Those officers may, or may not, have litigation experience.

Smith’s review found that in some cases, the panelists reversed the chief’s decisions to mete out punishment and reduced penalties for officers based “substantially” on character witnesses the officers called. Those witnesses were often their fellow officers who spoke favorably of them or characterized their alleged misconduct as “an isolated aberration in terms of their normal behavior,” Smith said.

He said in one case his office reviewed, the civilian Board of Rights panel praised the officer during the hearing in which they were supposed to be deciding his punishment.

“We also saw in an isolated instance — and I do believe that’s an appropriate way to frame it — one Board of Rights panel that extensively praised an accused officer, on the record, in a manner that raised concern about avoiding any actual and/or perceived impartiality to one side,” Smith told the commissioners.

Smith warned the commission that giving so much power to the civilian panels means that if the chief attempts to fire an officer found unfit for duty, the department would be forced to keep that officer on the job if the Board of Rights decides differently.

Furniss, the detective, said in some cases that meant the panels could reinstate officers on the department’s Brady list the chief attempted to fire. Brady lists, created by a Supreme Court decision and maintained by police departments, contain names of officers found to lack credibility either because they lied under oath, falsified evidence or committed other misconduct.

“Unfortunately, some of the civilian board members have quite frankly said that’s not their problem, and they keep the individual anyway,” Furniss said.

The city ordinance creating the panels required the City Council to review their effectiveness after two years, which means the city can now take a look at how they’re working.

On Tuesday, the commission voted to move Smith’s report on to the council for review.

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