OAKLAND -- Police departments can lower crime and gain the public's trust by following the rules, especially the U.S. Constitution. That's the formula being promoted by an attorney whose job is keeping the Los Angeles Police Department honest.
Gerald Chaleff was the featured speaker at the Safe Oakland crime series held at Holy Names University June 17.
A veteran defense attorney and former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, Chaleff was appointed to a special post overseeing implementation of department reforms in 2003 stemming from that city's Ramparts police scandal.
Like Oakland, the efforts by Los Angeles were mandated by an outside agency, in this case, the U.S. Justice Department.
Oakland been under court ordered reform since 2003 following "The Riders" incident in which officers patrolling West Oakland used excessive force on suspects, planted evidence and falsified police reports. Recently a federal judge, dissatisfied with the pace of reforms appointed a compliance officer to ensure that changes are being made to department procedures.
It took Los Angeles eight years to get out from under the Justice Department decree and officials just recently released the city, Chaleff said. Other police departments in New Orleans Detroit and Seattle are looking at the LAPD model to solve similar problems, he added.
"We are the poster child of what happens when a consent decree is successful," he said.
Chaleff helped negotiate terms of the decree with the city's police union but admits that changing the department culture was difficult.
"It's not easy because police office don't like to be told that they are not performing in the appropriate way," Chaleff said. "Citizens groups think that when that happens, there's something wrong with the police department. It takes a lot of hard work but in the end, it's worthwhile."
The reform program included a number of changes designed to gain the public's trust. To become more transparent, the Los Angeles police commission issued reports on police handling of incidents and posted the reports online. A citizen complaint procedure was improved with complaints logged in and followed up by the department's internal affairs division or area commanders.
Once arrested, suspects would be seen by a police supervisor, asked if they understood why they were being arrested and if they were injured.
And a multi-million dollar computer system was installed that flags officers with higher than average complaints of extreme force so supervisors can resolve the problem.
The results have been impressive, according to Chaleff. Crime in Los Angeles is down overall with gang crime declining 50 percent, and violent crime down 60 percent currently.
Chaleff credits the improvement to greater public trust in the department after it worked hard to change its procedures. One suspect who had been arrested several times even had praise for the new look LAPD.
"He said, 'I've been arrested a lot but now they are treating me with dignity and respect,'" Chaleff said.
The fundamental way to gain public trust is to police using the guidelines set forth in the U.S. Constitution, Chaleff said.
"You do it constitutionally. You follow the rules," he said.
"Police departments have many rules. It means you don't stop somebody because you don't like the way they look. You stop them because you have probable cause.
"You write reports in the right way. You treat people in the right way. As long as you have rules and treat people with respect, that's the right way."
Chaleff admitted that Los Angeles has far greater resources than Oakland with a police force of 10,000 compared with Oakland's 634 personnel. He called that number "woefully inadequate."
Though Los Angeles police officers at first chafed at the new rules, in time they came to accept the reforms. Promotions of sergeants, lieutenants and other supervisors who worked with Chaleff sent out the word that getting with the new program was worthwhile, he added.
Chaleff urged the audience to support the Oakland police while the department is going through the reform process. Despite the need for police reform, most officers are hardworking and try to play by the rules.
"The great majority are doing a good job," he said, "They are doing it because they want to help. They are not doing it because they want to push people around. They are doing it because it's a calling."
Oakland Interim Chief Sean Whent said his department hopes to resolve all the court enforced reforms within 18 months.