In Devin Brown Ruling, L.A. Times Pretends to Be Concerned with Secrecy, But Is Truly Concerned Only with Results
A group meets behind closed doors to decide whether an LAPD officer has used excessive force. Does the Los Angeles Times trumpet the courage of the group’s findings? Or does it loudly denounce the secrecy with which the decision was made?
That, my friends, depends entirely upon whether the findings are for or against the officer who allegedly used excessive force.
If the group’s findings are favorable to the officer, then the group’s secrecy in reaching the findings will be deemed spooky and Orwellian. That secrecy will become the subject of numerous articles.
By contrast, if the group’s findings go against the officer, then the theme of the article will be the courage of the group in reaching the findings. And the fact that they were reached in secret? It’s hardly worth mentioning! Secrecy, schmecrecy!
These are serious charges I’m making, because if true, they demonstrate a marked anti-police bias on the part of the editors.
But I can prove them.
A recent series of articles in the paper has highlighted the secrecy of findings made by an LAPD Board of Rights, exonerating Officer Steven Garcia of wrongdoing in the shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown. Again and again, the articles have emphasized the secrecy of the Board of Rights’s decisionmaking process. The articles repeatedly quote “experts” who say that the public can’t have any confidence in the Board of Rights’s findings, because of the secrecy with which the decision was reached.
The articles also make a point of contrasting the Board of Rights’s findings with those made by a five-member Police Commission in February of last year. Unlike the Board of Rights, the Police Commission found that the shooting was out of policy.
Yet in the recent articles on the Board of Rights’s decision, the paper never explains that the contrary Police Commission findings were made in a process every bit as secret as that of the Board of Rights. (The only difference I can see is that the Police Commission’s results were officially announced and released by the Commission, whereas the Board’s were released by the officer, because of the necessity for a privacy waiver. This is not a meaningful distinction, as the public has learned the results and reasoning in both cases. But the process — the proceedings, taking of evidence, and deliberations — was secret in both cases.) And when the paper initially reported the Police Commission’s findings, the secrecy of the Commission’s proceedings was barely mentioned, and was given no prominence whatsoever.
As I say in the headline, the editors appear to care about the secrecy of these proceedings only when an emphasis on the proceedings’ secrecy might help undercut the legitimacy of a decision that was favorable to the accused officer. Otherwise, the editors apparently couldn’t care less about secrecy.
Details in the extended entry.
Yesterday, the L.A. Times ran an article titled Secrecy again a major issue for the LAPD. A deck headline reads: “Police Department board’s private ruling clearing an officer in the shooting of a 13-year-old alienates a broad swath of the public.” The article complains that the Board of Rights ruling was “a case study on the perils of government secrecy.” The article says that the ruling
raises — as Los Angeles history has a way of doing again and again — the question of whether a decision reached in secret can satisfy the public, particularly when the question under debate is an allegation of police abuse.
Merrick Bobb is quoted as calling the decision and its secrecy “intolerable.” Earl Ofari Hutchison is quoted as calling it a “whitewash.” And Erwin Chemerinsky is quoted as saying that, as a result of the decision’s secrecy, “There is no way for the public to have confidence in this decision.”
This article echoes the themes of the front-page story that initially reported the Board’s findings. The very first sentence of that article emphasized the secrecy of the findings:
A Los Angeles Police Department disciplinary board has secretly decided not to punish the officer who fatally shot 13-year-old Devin Brown two years ago, rejecting an earlier ruling by the civilian Police Commission that the act violated department policy, sources confirmed Tuesday.
The reporting of the Board of Rights findings stands in stark contrast to the reporting of the Police Commission findings last February. Those findings were reached in private, behind closed doors, but this secrecy wasn’t the focus of that story — by a longshot. No, the focus was in the fearless independence of the Police Commission in rejecting the recommendation of Chief Bratton. The story then was titled LAPD Chief Overruled on Teen’s Death, and began:
The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday rejected the recommendation of Police Chief William J. Bratton and ruled that the officer who fatally shot a 13-year-old after a brief chase violated department rules and should face discipline.
The decision marks the first major test of a panel that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed last summer to provide tougher oversight of the Los Angeles Police Department. Many of the previous civilian commissions have been criticized as a rubber stamp for the chief.
The article is replete with kudos for the intrepid Commission. There is praise from the mayor and community activist Najee Ali, as well as chest-beating from the head of the Commission, John Mack — who, unbeknownst to Times readers, had given an opinion on the case before he ever joined the Commission, saying in the aftermath of the shooting: “We have a pattern here where some police officers don’t value the lives of young African American males.”
A more skeptical newspaper might have reminded readers of that comment, and questioned whether it was appropriate for Mack to have participated in the deliberations, ultimately voting against Officer Garcia, when it appeared that he had long since made up his mind, simply based on the racial politics of the incident. But the L.A. Times article said not one word about Mack’s prejudgment. Nor did the Commission’s secrecy seem to trouble the editors. The secrecy of the Police Commission’s decisionmaking is mentioned in the article’s eighteenth paragraph, which says in passing that the decision “was made behind closed doors after nine hours of presentations and deliberations.” No experts denounce the secrecy, and the article quickly reverts to its predominant tone of praise for the Commission and its findings.
By contrast, in recent days, the Board of Rights’s decision in favor of Officer Garcia has driven home the theme of secrecy, which is front-and-center in at least nine recent articles, editorials, and op-eds concerning the findings. These pieces have all emphasized the secrecy of the proceedings, and contrasted the Board of Rights findings with those of the Police Commission, without mentioning that the Police Commission’s findings were also reached in secret. In addition to the two articles mentioned above, and an op-ed by Erwin Chemerinsky (discussed below), the paper has run these articles in recent days:
- Officer’s exoneration in teen’s death stirs calls for civilian oversight, January 11, 2007:
LAPD panel’s secret decision to exonerate the officer who shot Devin Brown brings calls for public access to disciplinary hearings.
. . . Some city leaders were even more outraged that the decision was shrouded in secrecy.
“This lack of public disclosure deepens suspicion in the African American community that the LAPD is more interested in protecting officers than in curbing police abuse,” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.
Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who led the LAPD from 1997 to 2002, said holding disciplinary hearings in private undermines confidence in the Police Department.
- LAPD Chief would open meetings to public, January 11, 2007:
A day after his department came under criticism for holding a Board of Rights hearing in secret to clear the officer who fatally shot 13-year-old Devin Brown, the chief likened the process to a “star chamber” in which the public is deprived of information important to holding the police accountable.
On Tuesday, The Times revealed that an LAPD board had secretly cleared Officer Steven Garcia in the Brown case after the Police Commission had held the shooting to be out of policy.
- Police chief, mayor urge openness, January 12, 2007:
With the Los Angeles Police Department suddenly confronted with intense criticism for its policies of secrecy, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton on Thursday called for changing state law to ensure that police disciplinary board meetings and some records are reopened to the public.
A day after community activists and city officials expressed outrage because the LAPD held a secret board of rights hearing to clear the officer who fatally shot 13-year-old Devin Brown, Bratton likened the closure of the process to a “star chamber.”
- Editorial, The blue fog, January 12, 2007:
The Times reported Wednesday that an LAPD board secretly concluded that no punishment was due an officer who shot and killed the unarmed, 13-year-old Brown in 2005, despite a determination a year ago by the civilian Police Commission that the officer violated LAPD policy and should be disciplined.
- Officer had been warned in prior case, January 13, 2007:
Over the last few days the Brown decision has touched off sharp recriminations in Los Angeles politics as top officials bemoaned the spectacle of an internal police panel undercutting the work of the department’s civilian leadership, a Police Commission appointed by the mayor.
Because the hearing was also conducted in secret after LAPD officials closed it in response to a recent court ruling, both Police Chief William J. Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for new laws that would keep such procedures open.
- Officer cleared in shooting releases transcripts, January 13, 2007:
The panel’s decision, reached earlier this week, outraged some city leaders because it was made in secret and rejected the civilian Police Commission’s finding that the shooting by Officer Steven Garcia was unjustified.
These articles contain many, many more quotes about the secrecy of the Board of Rights proceedings. I just gave you some representative ones.
Every single one of the above pieces 1) emphasized the secrecy of the Board of Rights proceedings; 2) contrasted the Board of Rights’s findings with those of the Police Commission. Yet not one of these pieces tells the reader that the Police Commission’s findings were also reached in secret. They do mention that the Police Commission had voted to redact officers’ names from their findings, but they fail to disclose that the Police Commission’s findings, like those of the Board of Rights, were reached in secret. (By the way, not one of these pieces reminds the reader of John Mack’s public statements prejudging the case before hearing it as a Police Commissioner.)
In fact, by repeatedly emphasizing the secrecy of the Board of Rights, and contrasting the Board of Rights’s findings with those made by the Police Commission, the above pieces arguably imply that the Police Commission findings were reached in a public hearing. What else could a reader conclude, after watching the paper repeatedly scream about the secrecy of one set of hearings, while saying nothing about the secrecy of the other set of hearings?
This implication became overwhelming when The Times gave op-ed space to Erwin Chemerinsky to decry the secrecy of the Board of Rights, while explicitly praising the Police Commission’s findings:
On Monday, a Los Angeles Police Department board of rights, after a secret hearing and without public explanation, determined that Officer Steven Garcia was justified in shooting and killing 13-year-old Devin Brown in 2005 as Brown slowly backed a car toward Garcia.
The board’s decision is particularly disturbing because the Police Commission, after a careful review, found that the shooting was not within LAPD policy.
Recall that Chemerinsky had said of the Board of Rights findings that, due to their secrecy, “There is no way for the public to have confidence in this decision.” But Chemerinsky describes an equally secret set of findings from the Police Commission as the result of “a careful review.”
How does Chemerinsky know that the Police Commission conducted a careful review? He wasn’t on it. A casual reader would conclude that the hearings had been public. Right?
Why does Chemerinsky — who has never let notions of consistency bother him before — denounce the secrecy of the Board of Rights while praising the carefulness of the Police Commission? The cynic would say it’s because he likes the findings of the Police Commission, and doesn’t like those of the Board of Rights.
The same cynic might make the same observation regarding the editors of the L.A. Times. If there is an alternate explanation, I’d love to hear it.
P.S. Yesterday’s article has this inaccuracy:
The city’s proven inability to keep certain matters secret was evidenced again last week. The Board of Rights that ruled in Garcia’s favor did so on Monday. By Wednesday morning, that ruling was on the front page of the newspaper.
And yet, although the ruling itself leaked out, the facts that the Board of Rights used to rule in Garcia’s favor have remained under lock and key.
Really? I know the facts that the Board of Rights used to rule in Garcia’s favor. Like the Police Commission’s ruling, the Board of Rights’s decision is publicly available, on the Internet (click here), and I linked them on this blog the other night. (Granted, it took a waiver of privacy rights by the officer to make this happen. But if the community is concerned primarily with pro-officer rulings, we should all realize that pro-officer rulings are the very kind of rulings that are most certain to be released by the officer in high-profile cases — why not let the public hear the Board’s rationale for ruling against you, after the paper has dragged your name through the mud for months?) The L.A. Times has not yet seen fit to provide its readers with a link to (or even a full and prominent explanation of) the facts set forth in that decision. But that doesn’t mean that the facts are “under lock and key.” They’re easily available with a few keystrokes of the computer.
Perhaps the article meant to say that the “evidence” supporting the decision is “under lock and key.” And indeed, the evidence has not yet been released. But evidence is not the same thing as facts. A picky point? I suppose — but accuracy sometimes depends on picky points.
By the way, I agree with Bill Bratton and the mayor (and even our pal Erwin C.!) that there should be openness in these proceedings — both for Police Commission proceedings and Board of Rights proceedings. But as I’ve said before, if they’re going to be open to the public, we need a better newspaper to cover them. You can’t trust what this newspaper reports on these issues. If I’ve made nothing else clear in this post, hopefully I’ve at least made that clear.