[Guest post by Jack Dunphy]
In June 2004 I sat down at one of my favorite restaurants for lunch and conversation with L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten. Rutten surely would have no quarrel with my description of him as a liberal, yet despite our political differences we found there was much we had in common and could agree on. The result of that lunch was a column (no longer available at the Times website, but excerpts posted here) in which Rutten was surprisingly laudatory of my work for National Review Online, and in which LAPD Chief William Bratton described my writing as “extraordinarily thoughtful.” If asked about me today, both Rutten and Bratton might well offer a different opinion.
In Wednesday’s L.A. Times, Rutten addressed the latest controversy to roil the LAPD, namely the provision in the federal consent decree, under which the department must operate until 2009, that mandates financial disclosure for officers assigned to anti-gang and narcotics units. The consent decree, imposed by the U.S. Justice Department on the LAPD in the wake of what became known as the Rampart scandal, has been in effect since 2000, but the exact form this financial disclosure would take was subject to much debate and negotiation, and last month the police commission voted to implement a system over the objections of the L.A. Police Protective League, the labor union that represents LAPD officers below the rank of captain.
Most of the 500 or so officers affected by this action have announced they will not voluntarily turn over the financial records sought by the department and instead accept reassignment to other jobs within the department. The information officers are being asked to provide includes account statements on all assets and liabilities, even those jointly held with others not employed by the LAPD. The Protective League has launched an advertising campaign claiming that providing this information will expose officers to the risk of identity theft or worse.
In his column, Rutten calls these claims “preposterous” and “baloney,” and lays out what he believes are the political expediencies that motivated L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley and some members of the city council to support the Protective League’s position. Rutten writes:
The hysteria the league has tried to whip up over this reform is worse than absurd. Does anyone on the council seriously believe that officers’ safety will be endangered because personnel information will leak to criminals, as the league alleges? If the LAPD is such an incompetent custodian of its personnel records, then perhaps officers should be allowed to keep their home addresses private as well. That’s a matter of physical security, after all. Moreover, after several calls to Parker Center, nobody at LAPD headquarters could recall a single example in which personal information concerning any officer leaked from there to a criminal.
First of all, you could make a thousand calls to Parker Center, or a million, for that matter, and it would only be through the most staggeringly uncommon luck that you would make contact with someone with any significant knowledge about what actually happens out on the streets of Los Angeles. Perhaps the people with whom Rutten spoke weren’t around back in 1985, but there are still some of us who remember the murder of Detective Tom Williams, who was shot and killed while picking up his six-year-old son from school in Canoga Park. Williams had earlier that day testified against Daniel Jenkins in an attempt-murder and robbery case, and when Jenkins was unable to hire someone to kill Williams he did it himself. (Jenkins was convicted of Williams’s murder and sentenced to death. Alas, he lives on.)
I don’t recall if detectives were able to determine how Jenkins came to learn where Williams’s son attended school, but it’s safe to assume he also knew where Williams lived. This was 23 years ago, long before the Internet made such once-private information so easily accessible and transferable, so it’s hardly inconceivable that Jenkins obtained the information from someone within the LAPD.
And it’s hardly inconceivable that someone might make mischief with the information LAPD officers are being asked to provide if it should fall into the wrong hands. As Rutten would have learned had he bothered to inquire, the LAPD is indeed, at least occasionally, an incompetent custodian of its personnel records. I learned this myself not long ago when I went in search of my own personnel package. It was not stored where it should have been, and there was no record of who had checked it out. It mysteriously reappeared some days later, but still there was no indication as to who had taken it or for what reason. I remain skeptical of the assurances given that officers’ financial records will be any more securely stored than was my own file.
But however remote the chances of being victimized by the leaking of an officer’s financial records may be, they still outweigh the benefit of providing them. There isn’t a soul alive who truly believes that this provision in the consent decree will detect or deter corruption in the least, an opinion expressed in a Times editorial that ran on December 20. In a department of more than 9,000 officers it’s all but certain there’s a crook or two in the bunch, but whoever they are they’re sure to be clever enough to hide their swag where it won’t be found.
Last week Chief Bratton made an appearance at the LAPD’s 77th Street Division, in South-Central Los Angeles, where he commended the officers for their efforts in reducing crime in 2007. But his mood darkened, I’m told, when an officer had the temerity to raise a question about financial disclosure. Financial disclosure, Bratton told the room, would soon be a fact of life in the LAPD, and he would gladly accept the resignation of any cop who had a problem with it.
This is precisely the kind of language we used to hear from Bratton’s predecessor, the much-reviled Bernard Parks, with the result being that hundreds of cops left the LAPD to join other departments. In 1992 there were 1,092 murders in Los Angeles, but the number declined steadily until 1998, when Parks disbanded the LAPD’s anti-gang units in a panicked and misguided overreaction to the Rampart scandal, which, as bad as it was, involved only a handful of officers at a single police station. Murders increased every year Parks remained as chief and only began to decline when he was let go.
There were 394 murders in Los Angeles in 2007, the lowest total since 1970. If this imprudent imposition of financial disclosure leads to the expected exodus of anti-gang and narcotics officers, you can expect the 2008 total to be higher.
— Jack Dunphy
UPDATE BY PATTERICO: I have further thoughts here.