U.S. judge ends federal oversight of the LAPD

By Joel Rubin
Jul 20, 2009

Declaring that the Los Angeles Police Department has reformed itself significantly after decades of corruption and brutality complaints, a U.S. judge on Friday ended a long-running period of federal oversight.

U.S. District Court Judge Gary A. Feess terminated the consent decree federal officials had imposed on the LAPD in 2001, after the Rampart corruption scandal. The decree required the department to undertake dozens of wide-ranging reforms meant to tighten internal checks on officers' conduct and subjected the department to rigorous audits by a monitor who reported to Feess.

In freeing the LAPD, Feess and his monitor, Michael Cherkasky, acknowledged improvements.

"When the Decree was entered, LAPD was a troubled department whose reputation had been severely damaged by a series of crises," Feess wrote in his ruling released early Friday evening. "In 2008, as noted by the Monitor, 'LAPD has become the national and international policing standard for activities that range from audits to handling of the mentally ill to many aspects of training to risk assessment of police officers and more.' "

Since his arrival shortly after the decree went into place, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton embraced it as a blueprint for how to pull the department from a troubled past and into a modern era of policing. In recent months, however, Bratton voiced increasing discontent. He said continued oversight had become a stigma that hurt morale, even when the department had proved its ability to police itself.

Bratton struck an anticlimactic note Friday, saying that while the decision showed "the department has regained its reputation," the LAPD itself had come to view the decree as outdated and irrelevant. "In the mind of the department, it has been over for a long time," he said.

Feess' action does not free the LAPD from making mandated improvements .

The judge approved a transitional plan that attorneys for the LAPD and the U.S. Department of Justice proposed to him last month. Under that agreement, the Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD, will assume responsibility from Cherkasky for keeping tabs on the department's efforts to fully implement a handful of still-incomplete or recently finished reforms. If DOJ lawyers are unsatisfied with the commission's oversight, the agreement allows them to object and bring the department back before Feess.

One of the outstanding issues is the department's handling of the hundreds of claims of racial profiling levied against officers by minorities each year. As part of the new agreement, the department must press ahead with a plan to outfit all its patrol vehicles with video cameras that will record all traffic and pedestrian stops. In addition, the commission will conduct a series of reports on how police officials investigate and resolve claims of racial profiling.

"We're disappointed by the judge's decision. The department has made substantial progress under Chief Bratton, but there's still too much evidence that skin color makes a difference in who is stopped, questioned and arrested by the LAPD," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern California -- the group that had most vocally argued against ending the consent decree.

A controversial financial disclosure policy also remains an issue. Intended to help identify and discourage corrupt officers who have access to cash, drugs and other contraband confiscated from suspects, the policy requires hundreds officers in gang and narcotic units to submit details of their personal finances to supervisors. Because the policy went into effect only recently -- because of persistent legal challenges from the police union -- the transition agreement calls for the commission to review whether department officials follow through with the disclosures.

Despite the union's continued opposition to the disclosures, union leaders had joined LAPD brass in calling for the end of the decree. "We are thrilled that the court has acknowledged the numerous reforms the LAPD has established," said union president Paul Weber.

In a final use of his authority, Feess added another issue to be monitored under the transition agreement. Recalling that the consent decree started with abuses committed by gang suppression units, the judge ordered the commission to report on any potential problems in the units.

There is no firm end date for the transition period, but it will probably take a few years for the LAPD to complete the required reports.

The Rampart scandal was a watershed for the department. Dozens of officers were accused of serious misconduct, including physical abuse of suspects, evidence tampering and perjury.

Public trust in the police plummeted and the department was forced to examine its inner workings. The Department of Justice threatened to sue the LAPD if it did not agree to the reforms, which imposed strict audit requirements on nearly all operations and, in particular, gave rise to a rigorous process for investigating police shootings and other uses of force by officers.

Feess, who has overseen the decree since its start, did not go easy on the LAPD. He extended federal oversight -- originally intended to last five years -- an additional three years in 2006, harshly criticizing the department at the time for its failure to adopt several of the largest changes, including a now-functional computer system that tracks officer conduct.

Last month, he expressed serious concern about the transitional agreement and took weeks to mull it over.

Cherkasky, the monitor, said the judge's decision to finally end the era of federal oversight "reflects a tough, hard eight years, but also a tremendous performance by the LAPD."

With roughly two-thirds of the LAPD's nearly 10,000 officers having joined the force since the start of the decree, Cherkasky emphasized the dramatic changes it has undergone in the last eight years. "The LAPD still has to make sure it doesn't backslide," he said, "but that is up to them now."