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LAPD needs new civilian watchdogs as leadership void grows

In the market for senior police officials, Los Angeles is recruiting.

As of this week, the city faces an unprecedented three vacancies in key LAPD leadership and oversight positions: chief, inspector general and executive director of the Board of Police Commissioners.

Current Inspector General Mark Smith was named Monday as an independent monitor to oversee police reforms in Portland, Oregon. Another top oversight official, Richard Tefank, who served as executive director of the Board of Police Commissioners for nearly two decades, retired late last month.

The department is already without a permanent police chief after Michel Moore unexpectedly announced his retirement in January after 5 1/2 years as chief. Last month, the Police Commission appointed Deputy Chief Dominic Choi to take over on an interim basis. A Northern California headhunting firm was hired last month to conduct a nationwide search for the city’s next top cop, a process expected to last until August.

The all-civilian Police Commission, which functions much like a board of directors for the department, will now be responsible for choosing replacements for Tefank and Smith — while also selecting three candidates for police chief as Mayor Karen Bass will have to examine.

The simultaneous openings mark a crossroads for civilian oversight in the city, where the commission has an opportunity “to put its stamp on the department going forward,” said Gerald “Gerry” Chaleff, former commission chairman.

“This has never happened before,” said Chaleff, who helped negotiate the 2000 federal settlement imposed on the LAPD, largely because of the Rampart corruption scandal, in which gang agents covered up false evidence, stole drugs and shot people without justification.

Los Angeles Police Commission members, from left, Richard Tefank, Robert Saltzman, Steve Soboroff and Matthew Johnson at a 2016 meeting.

(Los Angeles Times)

If approved for his new role in Portland, Smith will work to resolve a decade-old investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, which previously accused the city’s police of using excessive force during arrests of people with mental illness.

It is unclear who will succeed Smith until a permanent replacement is named.

Tefank’s temporary replacement is Django Sibley, a deputy inspector general who oversees all investigations into serious uses of force by police and who has built a reputation as an effective behind-the-scenes operator since joining the office in 2004.

A former small-town police chief who spent the last 20 years overseeing the commission – far longer than any of his predecessors in the role – Tefank was named commission director after serving as the cities’ top police officer from Buena Park and Pomona. He was fired from the latter position for what he said was his refusal to fire officers because he felt it violated their due process rights.

Tefank started at a particularly difficult time for the LAPD. Just 18 months earlier, the long-troubled department entered into a federal consent decree that mandated numerous changes overseen by a monitor and a federal judge. Over the next two decades, his serious, raspy voice and wispy white hair were present at commission meetings.

In an interview Monday, Tefank said he was proud of what he had accomplished during a 55-year career in law enforcement. As executive director, he said he had a front-row seat to the department’s transformation after Rampart, from a department historically fiercely opposed to outside influence to one that reluctantly accepted change.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore, left, and Richard Tefank, executive director of the Board of Police Commissioners, during a 2018 meeting.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore, left, and Richard Tefank, executive director of the Board of Police Commissioners, listen to speakers at a 2018 board meeting.

(Los Angeles Times)

Despite its ongoing challenges, including significant staffing shortages, Tefank says he thinks the department is moving in the right direction.

“I hope my legacy is that I served the commissioners – the 28 that I worked for – well, I served the department well and I served the public well, that I balanced those three areas,” he said.

Gaps in LAPD oversight have been documented in countless official reports since the 1960s, and critics say the five-member Police Commission still lacks teeth. He can order policy changes and recommend a police chief’s firing — or decide whether he should be reappointed for a second term — but he has virtually no say in the department’s day-to-day operations . The inspector general’s office is responsible for conducting audits and studies, but only at the commission’s request.

“The problem is that the police commission may be doing more … but it still doesn’t have the ultimate authority to make systemic changes,” said Chaleff, the former commission chairman.

Each week, the commission’s meetings at LAPD headquarters are filled with frustrated critics, activists and residents who lament what they see as the oversight board’s lack of willingness to stand up to the police department in any meaningful way.

Tefank pushed back against what he called “a false perception” about the commission’s cozy relationship with the LAPD. He said adopting a “more adversarial role,” as some critics would like, would make it harder to win support for new policies. “I challenged the department when I thought it was appropriate, and frankly, I also challenged the commissioners when I thought it was appropriate,” he said.

Former LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said that when he set out to overhaul the department in the wake of the Rampart scandal, he found a willing partner in Tefank, whom he remembered for his broad knowledge of policing, his “very friendly” personality and his work ethic. .

“It’s very important that the police chief gets along with the police commission,” Bratton said, “and for that to work you need an executive director who has the ability to build a bridge between the two.”

By the time he retired, Tefank had considerable influence on the commission. As director, he established meeting agendas to clear the way for certain issues or projects. He was also responsible for choosing hearing examiners who serve on committees that decide whether officers should face discipline or be fired. .

Police Commission member William Briggs called Tefank the department’s “unsung hero.” Briggs, said that, like him, most commissioners do not come from a law enforcement background and therefore rely on Tefank’s institutional knowledge for advice on creating new policies or abandoning them. ‘old.

“Mr. Tefank has guided and directed us, not just through a department that very few people know about,” said Briggs, an entertainment attorney. “He is our eyes and ears on what is happening daily in the Department. ”

Briggs, who spoke before Smith left for Portland, said the recent vacancies have given the department and city a clean slate.

“This is the beginning of a new chapter for law enforcement and the city of Los Angeles,” he said, “one that will take us into the next century of policing.”

California Daily Newspapers

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