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Will Dorner's Case Bring A Return To Open Board Of Rights Hearings?

Michael Juliani, Brianna Sacks |
February 11, 2013 | 4:10 p.m. PST

Senior Editors

LAPD logo (Flickr Creative Commons)
LAPD logo (Flickr Creative Commons)
At the Board of Rights hearing in 2009 where Christopher Dorner defended his claim that he had seen his training officer kick a mentally ill man in the head, there were no reporters, cameras, or members of the public present, because they were not allowed. 

Last week Police Chief Charlie Beck re-opened the investigation into Dorner's allegations, which the three-person panel deemed false and fired him for making. 

In his manifesto, Dorner claimed that racism in the department led to his dismissal.

MORE: Social Media Reacts To Dorner's Manifesto

Beck said he hoped to restore faith in the police department by reexamining the case. But if the Board of Rights hearing had been open to the public in the first place, this issue could have been avoided. 

Two years earlier, in 2007, California State Sen. Gloria Romero lost her battle in Sacramento to re-open police disciplinary hearings to the public in Los Angeles and Oakland.

"The passage of that legislation would give full transparency to open up hearings, and their outcomes, to the public," said the former state senator in a phone interview. 

Romero, who was term limited in 2010, commends the LAPD's decision to reopen Dorner's case and says it "is the right thing to do."

"Reopening these hearings underscores the need for the state legislature to go back and look at the legislation I authored and run it through," she said. "This may not impact the Dorner situation now, but there will be cases that will come up that merit the need for full disclosure to the public." 

Extra security was brought in to the hearing where Dorner lost his case and his job, a decision that police believe led to the ex-cop's violent vendetta against the police department. 

With the privacy restrictions in place, the details of Dorner's hearing couldn't be scrutinized by the public or media. The public had been free to attend these hearings for many years, until the decision in Copley Press v. Superior Court in 2006. The decision said records of an administrative appeal of sustained misconduct charges are confidential and may not be disclosed to the public.

Though it's impossible to say whether different variables could have prevented Dorner's violent outburst this week, it's fair to conclude that more public scrutiny in the Board of Rights hearing process could have prevented much of the surrounding mess. 

Board of Rights legislation gives the public a greater sense that there was a fair evaluation of cases dealing with police misconduct, and that the level of discipline fits the crime, such as the ultimate dismissal of Dorner for making false allegations against a fellow officer, according to Romero. 

"I think about this concept of progressive discipline and wonder, was that a first defense against Dorner?" asked Romero. "The public would have a better understanding of the degrees of punishment of a concluding dismissal from LAPD if they knew if there were graduated sanctions, warnings and other types of discipline taken beforehand."

A dismissal of a police officer due to misconduct or other allegations would not be questioned or scrutinized as intensely by the public if citizens and the press had the right to know what was going on in those hearings, says Romero.

"Reopening Dorner's case is a reaction to a lingering lack of full trust in evaluations and the fairness of discipline with the Los Angeles Police Department," she said.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, deals with police secrecy cases and says it has become increasingly difficult to obtain files and investigation outcomes from police departments because of an almost non-existent transparency with the public. 

"If the public and the press had followed the Dorner case the public might have some greater confidence that the LAPD did the right thing in firing this guy," said Scheer. 

 "There are widespread doubts, particularly in the African American community, of did he reach the point that he flipped because of racial discrimination in the department, or was he just off from the beginning? If the public and the press were allowed into those hearings it may have changed the outcome."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, along with former Police Chief William Bratton, supported the idea of re-opening the hearings in 2007, in the immediate aftermath of the officer-involved shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown.  

"We need open hearings," Villaraigosa said, according to the L.A. Times. "The people of this city have a right to know how police officer discipline is conducted, and the officers have a right to make the case to the public." 

But no other action was taken, and when asked on Monday whether the mayor was thinking again about Board of Rights hearings, Villaraigosa's spokesman Peter Sanders said, "This issue has not come up yet, but if it does become part of the discussion, we'll certainly let you know."

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the propagators of police secrecy, if you will, also are not considering changing the policy. "We haven't discussed that at all," said Eric Rose, the League's spokesman. "So the answer would be unequivocally no." 

More: Protesters Seek End To LAPD 'Spying'

Former L.A. Police Protective Leauge President Bob Baker said the public is already represented at the hearings because the disciplinary board includes a civilian along with two high-ranking police officials, according to the L.A. Times.

According to Scheer, California has a special problem of police secrecy, as California legislators are generally much more open to being influenced by campaign contributions and the threat of retaliation for going against a powerful, well-organized group. 

The police have interpreted the law, he said, to allow themselves to become more secretive than necessary. "It's a problem because the police department is not only the most visible arm of government in terms of people's everyday interactions, it is also the one that has the most direct potentially coercive power over people in their lives," Scheer said. 

In a 2008 editorial, the L.A. Times said, "Leave it to the Los Angeles Police Protective League, in its zealous desire to represent its members, to thwart good public policy. The league and other unions lobbied and resorted to outright threats--one union leader not from Los Angeles promised to campaign against term-limit reform unless legislators defeated Romero's bill. Legislators folded, and the bill died."

"Police mistrust is a long, festering sore with the LAPD that has never healed," said Romero."Why don't we have a right to know?"

Read more of Neon Tommy's coverage of the LAPD and the Christopher Dorner manhunt here and here.
Reach Senior Editors Michael Juliani and Brianna Sacks here and here.



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