My Chief Concern

Since Councilman Stannis was ousted for being in bed with the Galindo cartel, the city of Los Angeles has been forced to reevaluate its political structure from the ground up.  But one important position that no one seems to be talking about is the chief of police.  And in light of the recent scandal, I think it’s time we gave Chief Barton another look.

Currently, the chief of police is appointed by the Los Angeles Police Commission, to serve a maximum of two five-year terms.  This system was put in place by Charter Amendment F, passed in 1992 in the wake of the Rodney King incident, when the Christopher Commission confirmed what most of us already knew: Chief Yates’ 14-year empire was marked by racial bias, police brutality and widespread corruption.  Los Angeles made the chief of police more accountable to the political machine because under the old rules, before term limits, the chief’s civil service position protected him from disciplinary action or discharge.  Something had to give, and Charter Amendment F seemed to be the answer.

The Christopher Commission believed that by giving the Police Commission dominion over the chief of police, the commission could serve as “a buffer against improper political influences or direct political assaults by the Mayor or City Council.”  But here’s where their logic fell to the ground: Los Angeles police commissioners are appointed by the Mayor and his choices are confirmed by the City Council!

The whole point of this is that the Police Commission is supposed to offer civilian oversight.  And, yes, technically speaking, the police commissioners are civilians, but they are appointed by the mayor!  So to one degree or another, the police commission is beholden to the mayor and the city’s political machine.  Now, I never thought that L.A. politicians were incorruptible, but until the Stannis scandal, I wasn’t aware just how compromised our political system was.

So this is where we stand now: we have a police chief who was appointed by a police commission that was approved by a city council roster that included at least one mouthpiece for a Mexican drug cartel.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily saying that Chief Barton is corrupt: there’s certainly been no hard evidence to support this claim.  All I’m saying is, in a political landscape where city leaders can be bought and sold with impunity, making the city’s top cop more autonomous and less beholden to the political machine might not be the worst idea.

And you know how I know that the city council feels secure in its hold over the current chief?  Because City Councilman Weston just put forth a proposal to eliminate the chief’s term limits altogether!  And why wouldn’t he?  The council’s had Chief Barton under their thumb for the past 4 years, why wouldn’t they want to keep him running the department for as long as he’s physically able?

But in response to Weston’s proposal, the Police Protective League has come up with what I see as a very viable alternative.  The gist of it is, if we want true civilian oversight over the chief of police, there’s only one viable option: let the voters decide.

And I hear you murmuring: “Won’t making chief of police an electable position make him beholden to the special interest groups that fund his campaign?”  And, sure, that’s always a danger.  But now that we know the Galindo drug cartel was whispering in Councilman Stannis’ ear for who knows how many years, I think it’s high time we wrest control of the city’s top cop position from the political machine and hand that power back to the voters, because the balance of police power that the Christopher Commission was so worried about correcting has now shifted far too much in the other direction.  Who’s with me?