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Latham & Watkins partner Edith Perez planned to make headlines when she stepped before the microphones on August 19, 1998. As president of Los Angeles’s Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees the police department, she had called this press conference to proclaim “a new era.” She proudly looked on as Bernard Parks, chief of the LAPD, announced that the department had implemented more than 80 percent of the reforms that had been urged by the Christopher Commission in July 1991 in response to the Rodney King beating earlier that year. Perez praised Chief Parks for dramatically improving the conduct and professionalism of the LAPD. “It’s a big day,” said the Latham partner. “I think the city of Los Angeles has a lot to be proud of.” Not everyone in the room felt so pleased. “I was troubled,” says Gerald Chaleff, a partner in the L.A. office of San Francisco’s Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe who was then a commissioner and has since replaced Perez as president. He knew that the department’s 80 percent calculation was rigged. For one thing, it took important recommendations that the department had decided it didn’t need to implement and lumped those in with the ones that had been completed. “I thought the press conference was ill-advised. I told [Perez] so before,” he says. Still, the Orrick partner stood by in support, a decision he now says he regrets. Another person with doubts was Katherine Mader, the Police Commission’s inspector general. For the previous two years, this former prosecutor, who acted as the commission’s full-time watchdog over the police department, had been sounding alarms. Less than a year earlier she had issued a critical report about the department’s failure to identify “high-risk” officers. At the time of the press conference, she was examining the department’s suspiciously low record of sustaining complaints about use of force. In 1997, she found, the department sustained four complaints out of 157. On the day of this media event Mader wasn’t there, but she had seen an earlier version of the department’s report. Upset with its methodology and conclusions, she had sent a critical memo to the Police Commission. But this was not a day for critiques. It was a day for congratulations and good feelings. Perez got her headlines. The very next week, however, the Police Commission heard less upbeat news. Chief Parks told them that an officer had been arrested for stealing eight pounds of cocaine from a police storage room. A year later that cop, Rafael Perez (no relation to Latham’s Perez), would trigger an unprecedented scandal within the LAPD by telling sordid tales of police corruption in order to reduce his sentence. His revelations were appalling. For years, he said, police routinely conspired to put innocent people in jail by planting drugs or weapons on them and filing false reports; they shook down suspects for drugs and money; some were brutalized while handcuffed. Examples of individual offenses were particularly shocking: One detainee was sent to prison for 23 years, on the basis of an officer’s perjury. (He has since been freed.) Another bled to death while a supervisor delayed an ambulance to let officers devise a story to cover up their shooting of the unarmed man. Perez’s horror stories, which started to become public last September, mostly involved an antigang police unit in a neighborhood called Rampart. But the extent of corruption appears to be much more widespread. The problem is so severe that in May the U.S. Department of Justice took the drastic step of threatening to sue the city for allowing its police to engage in a pattern and practice of unconstitutional violations. For now, the Justice Department has agreed to defer litigation if the city agrees to a program of reforms. With Los Angeles facing the biggest police corruption scandal in its modern history, its five-person police commission is on the defensive. The Christopher Commission, which was headed by big-firm lawyers, had entrusted the Police Commission, also led by big-firm lawyers, to carry through reforms intended to prevent major scandals like this from occurring. With the stain of Rampart still spreading, it looks as if the Police Commission — headed for the last four years by partners at Orrick, Latham, and Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe — has failed in that mission. Although that failure stems in large part from the city’s refusal to give the commission adequate resources, it’s also a product of commission members’ coziness with police and the political establishment. Some talented, well-intentioned people have served on the Police Commission. But it simply has not achieved many of the reforms most ardently urged by the Christopher Commission. It still does not exercise enough authority over the police chief. It still lacks the staff and resources to provide effective oversight. It still hasn’t mustered enough will to force through decisions against the wishes of the chief and the mayor. Perhaps it’s an impossible job. The commissioners, who are appointed to five-year terms by the mayor, work part-time and are unpaid. It’s hard enough being a partner at a major law firm. Imagine trying to manage the LAPD as an outside hobby. On top of that, they have to deal with political pressure from Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, who has been a strong backer of the controversial Chief Parks. “Nobody wants to abolish the concept of having a civilian Police Commission to hold the department accountable. But it has not worked so far,” says Raphael Sonenshein, professor of political science at California State University-Fullerton and an expert on Los Angeles government. “The biggest problem is that the Police Commission is not independent of the mayor.” Says another person familiar with the Police Commission: “It’s a difficult, difficult job. You pray to God the right people are in charge of the commission at the right time.” Dean Hansell, a partner at the Los Angeles office of New York’s LeBoeuf, Lamb, Green & MacRae who has been a police commissioner since 1997, admits that the Rampart scandal has prompted introspection. “I think we will come to the conclusion there are some things we could have done differently or should have pushed for more,” he says. The fallout from the Rampart scandal, already bad, will only get worse. By mid-May, the district attorney’s office had thrown out at least 67 felony convictions, with many more considered in jeopardy. At least 70 officers are under investigation for crimes or misconduct. Each day, it seems, new revelations about abuse and corruption make the front page of the Los Angeles Times. The financial toll from civil suits is a wild guess. The city attorney’s office has estimated that total liability could exceed $125 million — a figure that almost certainly is optimistically low. As for the man whose name is synonymous in Los Angeles with police reform, Warren Christopher declined comment for this article. In March, however, he expressed concern and disappointment about the lack of progress in the Los Angeles Times: “It’s troubling to find that there are matters of real importance that were discussed in our report of nine years ago that remain unaddressed or not fully resolved today.” Like many veteran criminal defense lawyers, Gerald Chaleff has perfected a seen-it-all demeanor. “As somebody involved in the criminal justice system for 33 years, nothing surprises me,” says the 58-year old Orrick partner. Still, Chaleff, who in July 1999 succeeded Edith Perez as president of the Police Commission, admits that he has been shocked by the scope of corruption being uncovered in L.A: “The criminal justice system seems to be permeated by it.” Chaleff became a commissioner in 1997, shortly after he joined Orrick, where he handles white-collar criminal cases and civil litigation. As a prominent defense lawyer, he’s an unlikely choice to oversee the LAPD. Chaleff made his name years ago representing the notorious Hillside Strangler, as well as the Alphabet Killer. He also served as counsel to the Webster Commission, a panel separate from the Christopher Commission that examined the LAPD’s response to the 1992 riots following the Rodney King verdict. He is known for being a good behind-the-scenes fixer. His current predicament will test all his fix-it skills. Not only has the public lost confidence in the commission, but Chaleff is caught in an awkward spot between the mayor and the police chief. Chaleff has been a political ally of Riordan; when Chaleff was president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, he endorsed Riordan for mayor. The mayor then chose him as a commissioner, and gave him the nod for the president’s post. Chaleff, however, has a different relationship with the often-imperious chief, in large part because of Chaleff’s background as an aggressive criminal defense lawyer. As the Los Angeles Times put it, Parks’ “distaste for Chaleff is one of the city government’s worst-kept secrets.” Chaleff attempts to act unfazed by the turmoil around him. But during an interview, he keeps up a stream of nervous gestures: drumming his fingers on his face, flicking drawers open and shut for no reason. Asked if he wished he had done anything differently as a commissioner, he deftly skirts the question: “No human being should feel they’ve done everything perfectly.” As for his current relationship with the mayor, he says it’s “always been good.” His relationship with Chief Parks? “Professional.” The current friction is atypical. Since the Police Commission in its current form was created in 1925, its members have rarely been adversarial toward the department. Its role is defined broadly in the city’s charter: “to supervise, control, regulate, and manage” the police department. Commissioners, who serve five-year terms, have in recent years most often come from the legal profession, with big firms well represented. (Four of the five current commissioners are lawyers.) Their power, in theory, is substantial: The commission hires the chief, and the chief reports to the commission. Yet despite the commission’s statutory power and the establishment credentials of many of its members, the group has long been criticized as weak. When the Christopher Commission examined the LAPD’s use of excessive force in 1991, it evaluated the Police Commission’s oversight. During most of its existence, wrote the Christopher panel, the body has acted as a “booster” or “rubber stamp” for the police department. It urged the city to give the commission more resources and staff, and the commission to toughen its attitude toward the department. Since Mayor Riordan took office in 1993, the performance of the Police Commission has varied enormously, depending on its leadership. Riordan’s first commission president, Gary Greenebaum, was an outspoken reformer. A rabbi who heads the American Jewish Committee, Greenebaum resigned in protest in 1995 when the L.A. city council ignored the commission’s recommendation to fire then-chief Willie Williams. (Williams replaced former chief Darryl Gates, who agreed to retire in 1991 in the aftermath of the King beating.) The commission reached its high point of credibility when it was headed by Raymond Fisher, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Heller Ehrman. Fisher, who joined the commission in 1995 and became its president in July 1996, was intimately familiar with the LAPD and its problems, having served as one of the Christopher Commission’s deputy general counsel. Diplomatic by nature, Fisher also benefited from a political climate that encouraged reform. Mayor Riordan wanted to oust Chief Williams, who had been selected by the prior mayor, Tom Bradley, so criticism of the chief was at that time welcome in city hall. Fisher didn’t shrink from exposing problems with the LAPD. He urged the commission to hire law enforcement expert Merrick Bobb to produce a status report on the Christopher Commission recommendations. (Like Fisher, Bobb had also been counsel to the Christopher Commission.) Bobb’s report, released in May 1996, was discouraging. Many of the most important reforms had not been implemented. Punishment for excessive force by police officers remained low, the “code of silence” problem remained, and the police too often discredited complaints by civilians. In addition, the Police Commission still lacked adequate staff and resources. In particular, Bobb said, it was essential that it install a more sophisticated computer system to track officer conduct and identify problem cops. During Fisher’s presidency, the commission took its most important step to improve its critical oversight by hiring Katherine Mader as its first inspector general. Although this new position was one of the most consequential changes advocated by the Christopher Commission, the post wasn’t filled for five years. Mader had a lot of experience digging into dirt. A former criminal defense attorney — who happened to serve as defense co-counsel with Chaleff in the Hillside Strangler case — she also had spent ten years in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office prosecuting murder cases and corrupt cops. She hit the ground running. Mader issued a series of critical reports that documented how the police department was failing to live up to the Christopher Commission reforms. A January 1997 report accused the department of undercounting civilian complaints and too often choosing to believe officers over civilians. That report also criticized the department for failing to develop procedures to identify troublesome patterns of conduct. Chief Williams was forced out the following March. Later that year, in another report, Mader revealed how the department failed to file charges against officers accused of domestic violence. Mader ran into a lot of anger and resistance at the police department, but Fisher backed her up. “I thought she did a very fine job,” Fisher says. “I found her to be very talented. She had a very difficult assignment.” Mader, who was elected to a seat on the Los Angeles Superior Court last March, declined to comment for this article. While the Police Commission under Fisher put more pressure on the department in some areas, in one area it did not change. One of the commissioners’ most important tasks is to review “officer-involved shootings,” which include any incident where an officer’s gun goes off. They must decide whether to agree with the chief’s assessment of whether a shooting was “in policy,” meaning that the officers followed proper procedure. A review of Police Commission minutes from 1995 to 2000 shows that the commissioners reviewed more than 470 officer-involved shootings. Not once in those five years did a majority of the Police Commission disagree with the chief’s conclusion. (The minutes don’t reveal the chief’s conclusion, only whether the commission accepted his assessment.) Fisher points out that they sometimes sent the police department back three times or more to bring them more information before they would sign off. “I think we put them through their paces,” he says. Only after the scandal erupted did the commission break out of its pattern. This February, after the police shot and killed a screwdriver-wielding homeless woman, Chaleff, Hansell, and T. Warren Jackson, an in-house lawyer at Hughes Electronics Corporation, disagreed with Chief Parks and voted 3 to 2 that the shooting was out of policy. Just as Inspector General Mader was getting rolling, the personality of the Police Commission changed. Fisher left in August 1997 to become the third-ranking official in the Department of Justice. (He has since become a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.) Riordan tapped Latham partner Perez, who had joined the commission in 1994, as the next president. A commercial real estate finance lawyer, Perez had spent her entire legal career at Latham. Her law enforcement expertise was limited to a stint as a deputy probation officer before law school. Her government experience included a position as vice president of the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission. Perez faced an altered political landscape. One month after she took the helm, Bernard Parks was sworn in as chief to replace Williams. Mayor Riordan, who chose Parks, had a political investment in showing that his chief could turn around the troubled department. Now, criticism of the police department got a cool reception. Parks threw his weight around. In February 1998 he rejected discipline guidelines drafted by the commission, claiming that they infringed on his authority. The commissioners backed down. Perez says they had no choice but to follow the advice of the city attorney, who sided with Parks. In any event, she isn’t troubled by Parks’ action. “Chief Parks is a much better disciplinarian than we ever had,” she says. “In the end it worked.” As the months went by, the Latham partner turned into a cheerleader for the chief. Perez disputes this. “He knew if he ever let the police commission down, I was all business,” she states, adding, “I would not say hello to him sometimes.” Still, she stresses her close relationship with the chief above all. “He trusted me and respected me, so he would listen to what I would say,” she says proudly. “Typically the Police Commission is at odds with the command staff. I privately had arguments with them, but they trusted me. That was my greatest accomplishment.” And she admits that she didn’t want to make Parks look bad: “I would not embarrass him publicly because I would not want to be embarrassed publicly.” When asked if she was disappointed in anything Parks did, she offers up minor peccadilloes. “He’s terribly late for meetings. He packs too much into a day. And he can drive you crazy when he’s speaking because he goes on too long.” She adds, “Some people say he’s stubborn, but so am I.” Perez defends her decision to stage the August 1998 press conference in which she declared they were “beyond” the Christopher Commission. “I think it was a different department,” says Perez. “That doesn’t mean you won’t have rotten apples. If you have 100 bad officers, you still have 9,600 good officers.” Some recommendations hadn’t been implemented, such as installing a computer system to track officer conduct and improving officer training, she concedes. “But,” she says, “there was more on the drawing board.” She admits, however, that before the press conference she had not tried to verify the police department report that purportedly backed up this grand conclusion. Before Perez became president, she wasn’t known as a police booster. “All of a sudden she became enamored of the chief and the mayor,” says one person close to the Police Commission. “She used to be quite critical.” For instance, before she was president she occasionally took the rare step of dissenting from the majority when the commission voted to uphold the police chief’s decision on whether a police shooting was proper. One former Police Commission president warns that it’s easy to get sucked into the police culture. “It’s very seductive,” says former commissioner Greenebaum. Commissioners get police drivers, and when a disturbance flares up, officers whisk them to the scene, sometimes in a helicopter. “You have to keep your wits about you,” says Greenebaum. “The incredible power that the LAPD has is awesome.” LeBoeuf’s Hansell, one of the commission’s most conscientious members, offers some support for Perez, crediting her with backing important changes he suggested. For instance, at Hansell’s urging, the commission during Perez’s presidency began routinely reviewing each incident where a police use of force led to a hospitalization. “There was no human being I ever met who has been as supportive as she was of those ideas,” he states. Perez was not so supportive of the commission’s inspector general. In contrast to Fisher, Perez had a terrible relationship with Mader, and discounted her critiques of the police department. “She got the desire and zeal to be a crusader,” says the Latham partner disapprovingly. “Unfortunately, too often her conclusions were reached without facts.” She cites as an example Mader’s claim that a whistle-blowing officer had been so stressed by harassment that his eyelashes fell out. “We found that he had been treated for a tumor and all his hair was falling out,” says Perez. Their clashes turned into an ugly public feud. In one case, Mader began investigating an incident in which Chief Parks stopped the service of an arrest warrant on an officer accused of violating a restraining order issued to protect an ex-girlfriend. Perez called a press conference to announce that she was closing the investigation, convinced that Parks did nothing wrong. Mader told the press she wouldn’t back off, although she later did. Mader ran into even more resistance when Perez and the other commissioners hired Joseph Gunn as the Police Commission’s executive director in the summer of 1998. The commissioners told Mader she had to report to Gunn — a former police commander and deputy mayor under Riordan — instead of to the commission. By this time, some of the overburdened commissioners welcomed a buffer between Mader and her endless complaints. One former Christopher Commission member says that they never intended the inspector general to be treated this way. “She was disabled from doing her job,” he says. After battling with Gunn for several months, Mader quit in November 1998. She lashed out in a front-page article in the Los Angeles Times: “The public is being defrauded into thinking it has an independent inspector general.” (After these events, the city charter would be changed to ensure that the inspector general reported directly to the Police Commission.) Perez had won the battle, but would take her campaign against Mader too far. In the fall of 1998, the city council called for hearings on city charter reforms that would strengthen the inspector general’s authority. Before the hearings, plain brown envelopes without cover letters arrived in the mail for city council members and former Christopher Commission members scheduled to testify. The envelopes were packed with press clips from an alternative paper that puffed Perez and savaged Mader, as well as unpublished letters to the Los Angeles Times praising Perez. The postal meter stamps on the envelopes were traced to Latham & Watkins. Perez was forced to admit that she had sent the anonymous mailings. “I was in a hurry,” says Perez, explaining why she didn’t include any identifying information. She says she sent the packets because she wanted to alert “reformers like the Christopher Commission boys,” as she puts it, to these materials. With this revelation, Perez had become a political liability. Riordan decided not to reappoint her to a second term. She says she stepped off the commission in May 1999 when she was appointed to a federal commission on women in the military. Looking back on her tenure, Perez says the only thing she’d do differently would be to include those cover letters. One disappointed Christopher Commission member sums up her record differently. Noting Perez’s transformation into a booster for Parks and an antagonist toward Inspector General Mader, he says, “The chief co-opted her so thoroughly.” A visit in April to the Police Commission’s offices, located at the LAPD’s headquarters, shows an operation that looks chronically undernourished. The dingy hallway that leads to the commission’s offices is pockmarked by missing plaster, the linoleum is scuffed thin, and the commissioners’ conference room looks like it’s furnished in early garage sale. Across the hall lies the cramped windowless office of Mader’s successor, Inspector General Jeffrey Eglash. The former assistant U.S. attorney had only a couple of months to get his feet wet before the Rampart scandal exploded. His understaffed office, which has been swamped with work, finally will get some long-needed resources. Earlier this year, the city council agreed to give the Police Commission an additional $1.3 million, most of which will help Eglash investigate the scandal. For the fiscal year ending June 30, the Police Commission and the inspector general had a budget of roughly $9 million (not including these additional funds). The bulk of that money, however, went to a division of 60 staffers that spends much of its time issuing permits for parades, sporting events, and other activities. Eglash says the commissioners are incredibly dedicated. But he’s concerned that they can be “captured” by the police brass, he says: “The department is the main voice they hear.” He says that while he has broad authority to investigate, he is hampered by insufficient resources. “We have two investigators for a department of 13,000 employees,” he notes. And the department still often views his more sensitive inquiries as interference. In recent months, commission president Chaleff has faced even more political pressure. In early May, Bill Lann Lee, acting assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, met with city officials, including Chaleff. He presented them with a four-page letter that described a host of abuses and deficiencies in the LAPD. Among other things, the letter noted that the city had failed to give the Police Commission and its inspector general adequate resources. Lee did praise the commission and inspector general for their investigation of the Rampart scandal. Still, he suggested that the current Police Commission model doesn’t work and needs to be changed. The Justice Department is especially angry that $162,492 it gave the city two years ago to start designing a more sophisticated computerized officer tracking system was never spent. (The city has an ineffective, rudimentary computer system.) The government considers these tracking systems to be crucial tools to monitor troubled police departments. “I can understand why the Justice Department is upset,” Chaleff says. “The city had money for two or three years.” The Orrick partner says that it was up to the city council to approve the necessary contracts; the council shoots back that the commissioners picked inept contractors that it couldn’t approve. One former Christopher Commission member expresses disgust at the delay. “I don’t believe that from 1991 to 2000, that in that decade, it was simply not possible to get a computer system in,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, nobody paid attention to it, so hundreds of thousands of dollars went unspent and nobody cared. … It’s a mess. Why wasn’t that money spent? Who the hell knows?” Former president Fisher questions whether it’s fair to blame the Police Commission for not uncovering the scandal earlier: “I think it has done a very good job over the years, depending on the quality of the commissioners and the cooperation of the police department. Could it do more? Absolutely, particularly if it’s given adequate resources.” Commissioner Warren Jackson says he’s concluded that they need to be more forceful. “I think we need to be more willing to use the power we have to get things done. … I think we could be more effective.” Asked why they haven’t been, he says candidly, “We serve at the pleasure of the mayor.” Perhaps it’s time for Los Angeles to consider a different model for its Police Commission. Instead of relying heavily on the pro bono efforts of law firm partners, it may need full-time, salaried commissioners. And instead of allowing the mayor to pick all the commissioners, each seat could be filled by different government entities. (The city’s Ethics Commission is selected this way.) These are among the issues now being considered by another Christopher Commission-type panel. In the last two months, Los Angeles’s legal community has once again rallied to form another group to help the Police Commission reform the Police Department. The best and the brightest from Munger, Tolles & Olson; Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher; and Kirkland & Ellis will probe many of the same issues that the Christopher Commission studied a decade ago. After months of diligent work, hundreds of interviews, and tens of thousands of billable hours foregone, they will undoubtedly submit a top-notch report. And while the exercise is certainly worthwhile, it’s a shame it has to be done. Didn’t someone already do this?

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