LAPD Chief Charlie Beck Interview, LAPD to Reform Problematic Crime Reporting, Cops Misunderstanding the Law, and Protection from Prosecutorial MisconductDecember 18th, 2014 by Taylor Walker
LAPD CHIEF CHARLIE BECK: STRUGGLING POLICE DEPARTMENTS CAN LEARN FROM THE LAPD BECAUSE IT HAS “BEEN THROUGH SO MUCH”
In an interview with NPR’s Kirk Siegler, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck discusses what struggling police departments can learn from the LAPD, not too long past a twelve-year federal consent decree itself. Here are some clips:
On the 11th floor of the Los Angeles Police Department’s downtown high-rise, Chief Charlie Beck has been fielding a lot of calls since the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Beck’s counterparts around the country are calling to find out how his department addressed what he calls the “ghosts of LAPD’s past.”
“I don’t want people to have to have their city go up in flames like Los Angeles did in 1992 to learn these lessons,” he says.
The lessons Beck refers to — and actual court-ordered reforms — began after Rodney King and addressed everything from police brutality to institutionalized racism within the LAPD. And they didn’t end until last year, when a federal judge finally lifted a consent decree originally imposed by the Department of Justice in 2001 following another corruption scandal.
Out of all this came an independent civilian oversight commission and a robust “use of force” investigation and discipline process. It also marked a shift toward community-based policing.
“We are where we are not because we are smarter or better than anybody else [but] just because we’ve been through so much,” Beck says.
Cities looking to reform their troubled police forces might have a template to turn to in Los Angeles, according to police watchdog experts.
“The police department went from being, in essence, an occupying army to being a community partner,” says attorney Merrick Bobb, who worked as a court-appointed monitor for the separate LA Sheriff’s Department and once served on a citizen’s commission reforming the LAPD.
DESPITE MAJOR PROGRESS, THERE ARE ALWAYS AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT: LAPD TO ADDRESS MISREPORTED CRIME DATA
Back in August, an investigation by the LA Times’ Joel Rubin and Ben Poston found that the LAPD mislabeled close to 1,200 violent crimes as minor offenses, significantly altering the city’s crime statistics.
Now, the LAPD officials have announced the department will implement crime reporting reforms, in an effort to provide accurate crime statistics for citizens who trust the department to produce reliable data.
Department staff will be given new training on how to classify crimes in a manner that will comply with federal guidelines, and station supervisors will now be charged with making sure classifications are correct.
Rubin and Poston have the update on their investigation. Here’s a clip:
So far this year, overall violent crime has increased 11% compared with the same time period in 2013, according to LAPD figures. The city has experienced a double-digit rise in rapes and a slight uptick in homicides and robberies. But the largest increase has come in aggravated assaults, which are up more than 20%. The rise in such assaults, officials have said, is partly due to the department’s efforts to improve its crime reporting, which has led to a more accurate count of serious assaults.
To carry out the reforms, the department formed the Data Integrity Unit — a small team of detectives and data analysts. Over the last few weeks, the unit has put about 400 station supervisors, senior detectives and clerical staff through a four-hour training course on how to properly classify crimes to be in line with federal reporting guidelines, senior analyst John Neuman told the commission.
In coming months, the unit is expected to add staff and take on more responsibilities, including serving as a “strike team” that will inspect crime reports at the department’s 21 divisions, Neuman said.
The department also plans a simple but significant change in its procedures for classifying crimes. Watch commanders — the lieutenants and sergeants who must approve officers’ crime reports — will be required to document how each incident should be classified in the department’s crime database.
The move is intended to reduce confusion and misunderstandings, in particular among civilian records clerks who currently are left to decipher reports and make decisions about how to classify crimes.
US SUPREME COURT SEZ COPS DO NOT NEED TO BE RIGHT ABOUT A LAW TO PULL A CAR OVER FOR REASONABLE SUSPICION OF BREAKING THAT LAW
Earlier this week, in an 8-1 ruling, the US Supreme Court said that a cop can pull over a car under reasonable suspicion of law-breaking, even if the cop misunderstands the law. In this particular case, Heien v. North Carolina, an officer pulled over Nicholas Heien’s vehicle because of a busted tail light. The officer found cocaine in the car, but North Carolina law only requires one working tail light. Heien appealed his cocaine-trafficking conviction on the grounds that the officer misunderstood the law and thus had no reason to pull the car over.
In a commentary for the Atlantic, author and University of Baltimore constitutional law professor, Garrett Epps, says this decision gives officers more freedom to pull people over for increasingly ambiguous reasons. Epps also points out that, if the situation were flipped, and NC law required two working brake lights, Heien would not get off the hook for misunderstanding the law. Here’s a clip:
The facts of Heien are that a North Carolina sheriff’s deputy decided that a passing car was suspicious. The driver, he decided, seemed “very stiff and nervous” because he was looking straight ahead and holding his hands at the recommended positions on the wheel. (I am sure there was no connection, but the driver was also a Latino in an overwhelmingly white county.) The deputy followed the car, seeking a reason to make a stop, until the driver put on the brakes for a red light. One of the two brake lights was out. The deputy pulled over the car for the broken brake light and questioned both the driver and the owner, who had been sleeping in the back seat. Eventually he got permission to search the car, found cocaine, and arrested both men. A fairly open-and-shut case—except that, a state appeals court decided, North Carolina law only requires one working brake light. The “offense” leading to the stop was no more illegal than hanging a pine tree air freshener from the rear-view mirror.
The lower courts refused to suppress the evidence. It is settled law that when an officer makes a reasonable mistake of fact—concludes from appearances that, say, an assault is going on when two friends are just tussling—a stop doesn’t violate the Fourth Amendment. But, Heien argued, a mistake of law is different. Consider the reverse scenario: If North Carolina law did require two brake lights, Heien could not have avoided a ticket by pleading that he thought it only required one. Most of the time, as we all know, ignorance of the law doesn’t get a citizen off the hook.
The Supreme Court had never decided this issue. On Monday, by 8-1, it concluded that the stop was “reasonable.” One can certainly sympathize with the deputy in this case: The North Carolina motor vehicle code on this point is virtually opaque, and the one-brake-light rule wasn’t clear to anybody until the appeals court decided it in Heien’s case. As for the “ignorance of the law” argument, the Chief Justice breezily responded, that’s fine. The deputy didn’t give Heien a ticket for having one brake light. “Heien is not appealing a brake-light ticket,” the Chief wrote. “[H]e is appealing a cocaine-trafficking conviction as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law.”
Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote separately to attempt to limit the effect of the decision. It’s not a question of whether he actually knew the law, but of whether the law was really clear to everybody, she wrote. “If the statute is genuinely ambiguous, such that overturning the officer’s judgment requires hard interpretive work, then the officer has made a reasonable mistake,” she wrote. “But if not, not.” All very well, but I can’t help concluding that Heien makes it easier for police to find a reason to stop anyone they think looks suspicious. And we as a society are learning some very hard lessons about what can go wrong with police stops. Roberts’s opinion takes not the slightest notice of the events of the past year. The world he describes is a kind of happy valley were police are polite, citizens know their rights, consent to search is always freely given, and only evildoers feel dread when they see a blue light in the rear-view mirror. “[R]easonable men make mistakes of law,” as well as of fact, he says.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a solo dissent, protested that the decision “means further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.” She pointed out that “[g]iving officers license to effect seizures so long as they can attach to their reasonable view of the facts some reasonable legal interpretation (or misinterpretation) that suggests a law has been violated significantly expands [their] authority.”
EDITORIAL: CALIFORNIA SHOULD JOIN 49 OTHER STATES AND IMPLEMENT A RULE TO STOP PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT
According to the Brady rule, prosecutors must turn over any evidence to the defense any exculpatory evidence that would likely have an effect on a conviction or sentence. Unfortunately, many prosecutors violate the Brady rule without consequence. There is, however, an American Bar Association rule that says prosecutors have to turn over any evidence that “tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense.” This interpretation of Brady is broader, and does not rely on prosecutors’ personal assessment of the significance of the evidence. The rule also says prosecutors have to hand over exculpatory evidence that turns up after a conviction.
California is the only state in the US to not have established some form of this rule. The California Bar spent years working on the code of conduct, only to have the state Supreme Court tell them to start all over again.
An LA Times editorial says properly protecting defendants cannot wait for the state to finish writing their rules, and calls on the state to use the American Bar Association’s version of the rule in the meantime. Here’s a clip:
There is an easy step California should take to curb this type of prosecutorial misconduct — the adoption of an ethical rule. One reason even well-intentioned prosecutors violate Brady is the cognitive difficulty of predicting before a trial has even occurred whether undisclosed information might be considered “material” — or sufficiently important to overturn a conviction — by an appellate court. Instead, prosecutors should follow a simple prophylactic rule that errs on the side of caution. Under the proposed ethical standard, prosecutors simply turn over any potentially helpful evidence without judging whether it could help lead to an acquittal.
The American Bar Assn., which publishes “Model Rules of Professional Conduct” to serve as ethical standards for attorneys nationwide, enacted Rule 3.8. The rule’s objective is to eliminate confusion. Part of the rule, which defines the evidence that must be disclosed, was designed to be broader and independent of Brady obligations, requiring prosecutors to disclose before trial all evidence that “tends to negate the guilt of the accused or mitigates the offense.” Again, this differs from Brady because it does not require prosecutors to evaluate how much the evidence tends to negate the defendant’s guilt. That is for the defense to argue and for the jury to decide.
The rule provides an exception so that prosecutors who have real concerns about witness safety, subornation of perjury or other significant considerations can seek and obtain protective orders from a court to delay disclosure. Equally important, other parts of the rule require prosecutors to turn over any evidence pointing to innocence that they become aware of after a conviction; they must take proactive steps to vacate a conviction if there is clear evidence of the defendant’s innocence.
California is the only state in the nation that has failed to adopt some version of this rule. Last week, we testified about the need for this rule at the State Bar of California’s hearing on attorney competency and disciplinary standards. The bar has spent nearly a decade redrafting a new set of rules of professional conduct. Complaints about the bar’s approach to redrafting the new rules recently led California’s Supreme Court to announce that it would restart the process with a new rules commission. The criminal-justice system cannot wait another decade to adopt a rule that will ensure fairer criminal trials. While the new commission considers how to revamp all the rules, the bar and court should adopt the American Bar Assn. model rule for disclosure of exculpatory evidence.