Don't Elect Chief

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

How's this for a bad idea?

Make the Los Angeles police chief an elected position.

The idea's being floated by the Los Angeles Police Protective League. They're the union that represents rank and file officers, and that would love to have a chief its members can intimidate and control.

A chief less like William Bratton, in particular.

The way elections work in Los Angeles, a union with money like the Police Protective League could buy its way to tremendous influence.

In elections where the police chief would be on the ballot, almost nobody votes. Last month, out of 1.5 million registered voters, just 17% actually voted.

And that was with the mayor and half of the city council on the ballot, and open races for City Attorney and Controller. And a heated race over the Department of Water and Power's dodgy solar power initiative.

Unions already pump millions of dollars and thousands of -- quote -- volunteers into campaigns for city offices and the LA school board.

They are, right now, the not so hidden power behind many Los Angeles politicians.

If the police chief were on the ballot too – well, I don't even want to know how ugly that could get.

The League says it just makes sense that the head of the city's largest department face the same public scrutiny and accountability as the City Attorney and the Controller, who do face the voters.

That would be better, the league argues, than leaving the hiring of chief solely to the police commission, which answers only to the mayor.

Editorial writers have called the league's position cynical and corrupt. I have to agree.

If anything, the League has too much political clout. Too often it uses its power to obstruct reforms that are making the LAPD a more professional, and more respected, department.

The League's job, of course, is to advocate for its members. On that it does a good job. As a public conscience, they're not so sterling.

Its leaders prefer rhetoric that dishes up the old, discredited, less professional LAPD culture embodied by chiefs like Daryl Gates.

Bratton has led the LAPD gradually away from that culture, which too often resulted in abuse and the perception that our police were at war with us.

After the Rodney King riots in 1992, the Christopher Commission brought about several reforms that were needed to modernize the old LAPD culture.

You get the sense that the old boy's network is still out there, seething and waiting to take back control.

Do you think the department is more professional now than in the days of Daryl Gates or William Parker? They don't.

This doesn't mean, however, that another bad idea going around should be embraced either.

That's the notion that the rules should be changed to give Bratton a third term.

As part of the Christopher Commission reforms, voters set a limit of two five-year terms.

It was suggested by former chief Ed Davis, who had seen up close the risks of the police chief becoming too entrenched.

City councilman Herb Wesson is carrying the water on waiving the limit to keep Bratton around longer.

It's enticing, with violent crime way down and respect for the LAPD pretty high.

But Bratton hasn't exactly been politics free. He campaigned for Mayor Villaraigosa and has endorsed Jack Weiss in next month's City Attorney runoff. The police union is backing Weiss's opponent, Carmen Trutanich.

More important, the term limits were put in to ensure that the police chief remain professional and answer to civilian control of the department.

Rather than cop out to hang on to Bratton, let's let the reforms play out and see whether the city and its police force have matured.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.