The Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard expected to be much busier when she was chosen to sit on hearing panels reviewing disciplinary recommendations for Los Angeles police officers accused of serious misconduct.
But after more than a year, he still hasn’t heard of a single case. Smith-Pollard thinks she knows why.
Secret and powerful boards are chosen as a trial jury, so accused officers and their lawyers have a say in “whom to invite,” allowing them to get a more sympathetic panel, he said. When he reached out to other examiners who hadn’t yet served, he said, he began to question whether some were overlooked because of their perceived views on policing.
“Sometimes the officers know who is on the board, sometimes they are more familiar with other names,” said Smith-Pollard, pastor of Word of Animement Church in Hawthorne. “Those of us who entered did so to be more of a representation of the community. But then there are those who are also pro-community, but are also pro-police.”
Like much of the LAPD’s disciplinary system, details about the identities of its 67 civilian examiners have long been kept hidden from the public. The Los Angeles Police Commission recently released a list of their names and biographies in response to a public records request from The Times. The watchdog plans to publish the same information on its website next week, he said.
Due to the secrecy surrounding the Board of Rights process, it is impossible to know how often an examiner has voted for lighter discipline for officers accused of serious crimes such as excessive force and racial bias, or if one was barred from sit on additional panels because their rulings displeased the police department or union, according to Carolina Goodman.
“That needs to be looked at, because the boss says it’s not working, a lot of people say it’s not working,” said Goodman, a board member with the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, who has fought for more transparency in the discipline. process.
Smith-Pollard said that while some of her colleagues have served on various boards, she and several other people she knows have yet to be selected. And not because there is not enough work for everyone.
In 2021, department officials convened 43 Board of Rights hearings for LAPD officers facing firing, demotion or long-term suspension. The vast majority of those panels were made up solely of civilians, who tend to take a more lenient view of officer discipline.
Civilian boards voted for a lesser sentence in about 68% of the cases between 2019 and 2021 in which LAPD Chief Michel Moore recommended firing an officer, according to data from the inspector general’s office. Traditional panels made up of one civilian and two LAPD command staff did so about half the time.
Before each hearing, the names of nine examiners are chosen at random by scooping balls out of a spherical container, according to Richard Tefank, executive director of the Police Commission. And then representatives of both sides take turns beating up prospective examiners, much like prosecutors and defense attorneys would when choosing a jury. Examiners are paid $900 if they work more than four hours.
“The first luck of the draw is to be in the first nine,” Tefank said. “Both the department and the Police Protective League, after a period of time, get to know the hearing examiners, get to know their proclivities, get to know the areas that they may be more sensitive to.”
Both parties get to know “people’s track records and that may lead them to select someone if their names are included in that lottery,” he added.
“There are probably people who are pro-management, and there are probably people who are pro-employee,” Tefank said. “So yeah, it’s a strategy; No doubt about that.”
Smith-Pollard applied to be an examiner after meeting with Moore, who convened a group of clergy following the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota by a police officer to seek solutions to hold officers accountable when they cross the line. Moore, he recalled, shared with the group his frustration at not being able to fire such officers.
Smith-Pollard, who also works at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, insisted that if called upon to serve on a board, he could be fair and impartial, letting the facts of each individual case determine. their vote on whether discipline is appropriate. She believes more residents should apply to serve on the panels, she said, because they better understand the devastating effects of poor policing in black and Latino neighborhoods.
“The community has to be involved,” he said, because “we are not very well represented in this internal process, which can actually have a direct impact on police accountability.”
The role of examiners has come under increased scrutiny in recent months, with Moore and Mayor Karen Bass publicly calling for the repeal of Amendment C to the Charter. Two years after its passage in 2017, the City Council approved a measure that gave officers the option of holding all-civilian meetings. It was passed despite opposition from civil liberties groups like the ACLU, which pointed to years of research showing that civilians tend to be more supportive of police. Others questioned whether the civilians chosen for the panels would adequately represent the interests of the public.
Defending the amendment, then-Mayor Eric Garcetti said at the time that he was confident that “Angelenos and everyday Americans would make important decisions.”
A review of the examiners’ CVs shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that most are professional lawyers or arbitrators and tend to be older. On average, they earned their college degree in 1982, based on résumés that included a graduation year. More than half were men.
About a third of the examiners are former law enforcement officers or have worked closely with the LAPD, such as former Commander Jeri Weinstein, who has held leadership positions with police departments in Henderson, Nevada, West Valley, and the Los Angeles Unified School District. Los Angeles after leaving the Department.
Others like Albert De Blanc Jr. were LAPD officers long ago. De Blanc retired from the force as a lieutenant in 1974 and later served on a blue ribbon panel that eventually hired William J. Bratton as police chief in 2002. He continued his career as a lawyer representing Suge Knight, founder of Death Row Records. . and a convicted felon, and other celebrities, according to his biography.
The commission said it does not keep records on the composition of each panel of the Rights Board. But an internal LAPD document that was reviewed by The Times shows a wide variation in the number of times examiners were selected to serve.
Some examiners sat on just three or four boards, while others, such as David Shapiro, a partner at law firm Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, served on 17 boards, according to the filing. Other frequent participants included Michael Diliberto, a veteran arbitrator who has served on 14 boards, and Sonia Amin, an Encino-based immigration attorney, who has served on 13 boards.
The document lists the names of the examiners of the cases that went to the 2015-20 Board of Rights, but does not mention the final disposition.
Last month, two City Council members introduced a proposal that would reduce civilian participation in such disciplinary hearings.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers from across the city, has long argued that traditional panels were unfair because the LAPD officers who served on them had an interest in supporting their boss, the police chief.
Tom Saggau, a league spokesman, said due process for officers is often overlooked in the current debate over revamping the department’s disciplinary system. Before the passage of Amendment C to the Statute, there was unspoken pressure on sworn examiners to follow the decisions of previous chiefs, he said, noting that the common thinking within the LAPD has long been that they are unlikely to an officer who crosses paths with a superior gets promoted.
“We believe that civilian oversight is the most transparent way to achieve fairness,” Saggau said.
He disagreed with the suggestion that the union was somehow stocking boards with more sympathetic examiners. Because many of the chief’s decisions are being overturned, he said, the question arises as to whether any disciplinary action should have been applied in those cases.
When asked about the composition of the disciplinary boards, Moore said he hoped the Police Commission would “continually evaluate the impartiality and professional judgment and articulation of those panels, and if they feel there’s bias in any way, then they’ll take action.” appropriate measures”.
What the department wants, he said after the committee meeting Tuesday, “is that we want this board process to be fair, balanced, not unduly swayed by acts of favoritism or currying with the boss or the favor of the league.”
Some of those serving as hearing examiners agreed.
Joseph Rouzan suspects the reason he hasn’t been selected to a board is because of his previous career with the LAPD, where he once served as president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, the department’s association for black officers. He thinks officers and their attorneys favor civilian examiners with no police records, relying on their lack of familiarity with department rules and regulations.
A civilian, for example, is likely to dismiss an officer lying as a misdemeanor, Rouzan said, not realizing that LAPD personnel with credibility issues cannot write reports or testify in court, forcing the department to to get them off the streets. and park them behind a desk in a police station.
Patricia “Pastor Pat” Strong sat on three boards in one year and said she signed up to be an examiner “to make a difference, to make sure minority voices or African-American voices are heard.”
She recalled being frustrated during a panel discussion because her colleagues seemed more concerned about how their decisions might affect the livelihood of officers with families than the potential effect on the community of leaving a troublesome officer on the department’s payroll.
“They were trying to be judge and jury, because they had the legal experience, and then they were all white, and I was black, and they couldn’t see where I was going,” said Strong, who recalled his colleagues telling him, “’Ouch dales. a chance,’ and I said, ‘No no no, if the boss says they were wrong, and I see that they were wrong,’” they deserve harsher punishment.
Tefank of the Police Commission said the challenge facing city, department and police union leaders is coming up with “a system that serves both wards.”
“This is not about the system; it’s about the result. If you like the result, then you will like the system,” she said.
Times Staff Writer Kevin Rector contributed to this report.