The le­gacy of Propo­si­tion F

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - he beat­ing of

TRod­ney King in 1991 and the vi­o­lence that fol­lowed a year later carved such deep grooves in Los An­ge­les’ col­lec­tive psy­che that it seemed only nat­u­ral last year and again a few weeks ago to ob­serve the 25th an­niver­saries of those events — and to re­flect on how pro­foundly the city was wounded then, and to what de­gree it has or has not healed in the two and a half decades since.

It’s too of­ten for­got­ten that the year of anger, out­rage and fear cul­mi­nated in a vote of the peo­ple that changed the city in ways at least as sweep­ing as those seven min­utes of video­tape show­ing King be­ing ham­mered by four L.A. po­lice of­fi­cers. The vote, like the beat­ing and the ri­ots, should be com­mem­o­rated and con­sid­ered.

On June 2, 1992, Los An­ge­les went to the polls and adopted Propo­si­tion F, a pack­age of re­forms that stripped the po­lice chief of civil ser­vice pro­tec­tion, im­posed a term limit on the job and beefed up civil­ian over­sight of the force. The changes — rec­om­mended by the panel of civic lead­ers led by War­ren Christo­pher that in­ves­ti­gated the LAPD in the wake of the beat­ings — were pro­found.

Since the 1930s, civil ser­vice rules had en­sured that the chief could not be fired with­out due process. In prac­tice, that meant he could not be fired at all, a les­son the city learned when the Po­lice Com­mis­sion tried to re­move Chief Daryl Gates af­ter the King beat­ing, only to be blocked in court. Civil ser­vice shielded the chief from pol­i­tics and pa­tron­age, but it also made him the most un­ac­count­able fig­ure in Los An­ge­les. Propo­si­tion F care­fully re­cal­i­brated his pow­ers, mak­ing him more re­spon­sive to civil­ian au­thor­ity with­out bring­ing back the cor­rup­tion and crony­ism of the city’s early years.

At the same time that city vot­ers were re­mak­ing the LAPD, the Los An­ge­les County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment was be­ing rocked by al­le­ga­tions of ex­ces­sive force by deputies against Latino and African Amer­i­can res­i­dents. Re­tired Su­pe­rior Court Judge James G. Kolts led a com­mis­sion much like Christo­pher’s, and it too pro­duced scathing crit­i­cisms and a slate of rec­om­men­da­tions. But there was no pub­lic vote on re­cal­i­brat­ing the sher­iff ’s power.

The sher­iff en­joyed then, as now, some­thing that in its own way is even bet­ter than civil ser­vice pro­tec­tion had been for the chief: He is elected by the peo­ple. In a county of 10 mil­lion res­i­dents, mount­ing a suc­cess­ful chal­lenge to the sher­iff is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble — no liv­ing L.A. County sher­iff has been voted out of of­fice in more than 100 years. Un­til Sher­iff Lee Baca’s res­ig­na­tion in 2014, sher­iffs vir­tu­ally se­lected their own suc­ces­sors and vot­ers merely rat­i­fied their choices.

Vot­ers never de­feated Baca. In fact, he de­feated them — by get­ting a court to over­turn a mea­sure to im­pose term lim­its. Later, when re­ports came to light of Baca’s deputies beat­ing jail in­mates, Los An­ge­les re­sponded with an­other panel of civic lead­ers: the Cit­i­zens’ Com­mis­sion on Jail Vi­o­lence. It is­sued solid rec­om­men­da­tions, but like the Kolts Com­mis­sion, it of­fered vot­ers no mea­sure to re­cal­i­brate the sher­iff ’s pow­ers.

Why has the county still had no Propo­si­tion F of its own? The of­fice and its vast and un­fet­tered power are an in­vi­ta­tion to abuse. As L.A. was ob­serv­ing the 25th an­niver­sary of the ri­ots, Baca was be­ing sen­tenced to three years in prison for ob­struct­ing jus­tice and ly­ing to in­ves­ti­ga­tors. Surely some re­craft­ing of the sher­iff ’s of­fice is in or­der. Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tion is no sub­sti­tute for proper civil­ian over­sight.

The Board of Su­per­vi­sors cre­ated an on­go­ing civil­ian over­sight com­mis­sion, which in its nascent weeks is do­ing an ad­mirable job of rais­ing is­sues and hear­ing com­plaints about the Sher­iff’s Depart­ment. But it has no ac­tual power. Even with a sher­iff of in­tegrity, as Jim McDon­nell ap­pears to be, and even with vot­ers weigh­ing in ev­ery four years, a struc­ture that leaves one per­son with that kind of unchecked power is un­sound.

Mean­while, McDon­nell’s ef­fort to ter­mi­nate some deputies for ly­ing and other mis­con­duct was thwarted — by the civil ser­vice sys­tem. LAPD of­fi­cers last month pushed through their own bal­lot mea­sure to roll back an im­por­tant com­po­nent of Propo­si­tion F and now will have an ap­peal process that looks a lot like the civil ser­vice process that deputies en­joy.

Given L.A.’s trou­bled history of law en­force­ment, some vig­i­lance and at­ten­tion to de­tail are im­por­tant. So is remembering achieve­ments like Propo­si­tion F, and repli­cat­ing them where ap­pro­pri­ate. Achieve­ments for­got­ten can too of­ten be­come achieve­ments lost. t may not seem pos­si­ble, but Tues­day is elec­tion day, again. At least, it is for An­ge­lenos in the 34th Con­gres­sional District who will choose their next con­gress­man. Vot­ers can find their polling places or the ad­dress of early vot­ing centers at Three lo­ca­tions will have early vot­ing on Sun­day from 8 a.m. un­til 4 p.m.

In this runoff be­tween two Democrats, The Times rec­om­mends Jimmy Gomez.

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