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Judge frees LAPD from consent decree

July 17, 2009 |  7:45 pm

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

U.S. District Court Judge Gary A. Feess terminated the consent decree federal officials forced on the LAPD in 2001 in the wake of the Rampart corruption scandal. The agreement required the department to undertake dozens of wide-ranging reforms meant to tighten internal checks on officers’ conduct and to submit to rigorous audits by a monitor who reported to Feess on the LAPD’s progress.

In freeing the LAPD, Feess and his monitor, Michael Cherkasky, lauded the department for its progress.

“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. “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.’"

Police Chief William J. Bratton has used the consent decree as a blueprint for how to pull the department from its often ugly past into the modern era of policing. In recent months, however, Bratton has voiced increasing discontent, saying the continued oversight had become a stigma that was hurting morale in a department that had proved its ability to police itself.

Bratton struck an anti-climactic note Friday, saying that while the decision shows “the department has regained its reputation,” it was viewed internally as outdated and irrelevant.

“In the mind of the department, it has been over for a long time,” he said.

In ending the consent decree, Feess did not free the LAPD entirely. He approved a transitional agreement that attorneys for the LAPD and the U.S. Department of Justice proposed to him last month.

Under the terms of the new agreement, the Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD, will assume responsibility from the federal monitor for keeping tabs on the department’s ongoing 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 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 nascent 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.

Also included in the transition period is the department’s financial disclosure policy that requires hundreds of officers in gang and narcotic units to submit details of their personal finances to supervisors. Intended as a tool to help identify and discourage corrupt officers who have access to cash, drugs and other contraband confiscated from suspects, the policy only recently went into effect.

As with racial profiling, the transition agreement calls for the commission to review whether department officials follow through with the disclosures.

“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.

The judge’s decision, Cherkasky said, “reflects a tough, hard eight years, but also a tremendous performance by the LAPD. The LAPD still has to make sure it doesn’t backslide, but that is up to them now.”

-- Joel Rubin