The Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard expected to be a lot busier when she was picked to serve on the hearing panels that review discipline recommendations for Los Angeles police officers accused of serious misconduct.
But after more than a year, she has yet to hear a single case. Smith-Pollard thinks she knows why.
The secretive and powerful boards are picked much like a trial jury, so accused officers and their attorneys have a say in “who to invite on,” enabling them to get a more sympathetic panel, she said. When she reached out to other examiners who hadn’t yet served, she said, she began to question whether some are passed over because of their perceived views on policing.
“Sometimes officers know who’s on the board; sometimes they’re more familiar with other names,” said Smith-Pollard, the pastor at Word of Encouragement Church in Hawthorne. “Those of us who got in, we got in to be more of a representation of the community. But then there are those who are also for the community, but they’re also pro-police.”
Like much of the Los Angeles Police Department’s discipline system, details about the identities of its 67 civilian examiners have long been kept from public view. The Los Angeles Police Commission recently released a list of their names and biographies in response to a public records request by The Times. The oversight body plans to post the same information to its website by next week, it said.
Because of the secrecy surrounding the Board of Rights process, it is impossible to know how often an examiner has voted for lighter discipline for officers accused of serious offenses such as excessive force and racial bias — or whether one was excluded from sitting on additional panels because their rulings displeased the department or the police union, according to Carolina Goodman.
“That needs to be examined, because the chief says it’s not working; a lot of people say it’s not working,” said Goodman, a board member with the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, who has fought for more transparency in the discipline process.
Smith-Pollard said that while some of her colleagues have served on multiple boards, she and several others she knows have not been selected yet. And not because there isn’t enough work to go around.
In 2021, department officials convened 43 Board of Rights hearings for LAPD officers facing termination, demotion or lengthy suspensions. The vast majority of those panels were made up of only civilians, who tend to take a more lenient view of officer discipline.
The all-civilian boards have voted for a lesser penalty in about 68% of cases between 2019 and 2021 in which LAPD Chief Michel Moore recommended firing an officer, according to data from the inspector general’s office. Traditional panels made up of one civilian and two LAPD command staff members did so about half the time.
Before each hearing, nine examiner names are picked at random by drawing balls from a spherical container, according to Richard Tefank, the Police Commission executive director. And then representatives for both sides take turns striking prospective examiners, much like prosecutors and defense attorneys would do in picking a jury. Examiners are paid $900 if they work more than four hours.
“The first luck of the draw is to be pulled into the first nine,” said Tefank. “Both the department and Police Protective League, after a period of time, get to know the hearing examiners, get to know their propensities, get to know the areas that they may be more sensitive to.”
Both sides get to know “the track record of individuals and that may lead them to select somebody if their names get pulled into that draw,” he added.
“There’s probably people who are pro-management, and there are probably people who are pro-employee,” Tefank said. “So, yeah, it is a strategy; there’s no doubt about that.”
Smith-Pollard applied to be an examiner after meeting with Moore, who convened a group of clergy members following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota by a police officer to seek solutions for holding officers accountable when they cross the line. Moore, she recalled, shared with the group his frustration in not being able to fire such officers.
Smith-Pollard, who also works at USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, insisted that, if called to serve on a board, she could be fair and impartial, letting the facts of each case determine her vote about whether discipline is appropriate. She believes more residents should apply to serve on the panels, she said, because they understand better the devastating effects of bad policing on Black and brown neighborhoods.
“The community has to engage,” she said, because “we’re not heavily represented in this inside process, which actually can be a direct impact on police accountability.”
The role of examiners has come under more scrutiny in recent months, with Moore and Mayor Karen Bass calling for a repeal of Charter Amendment C. Two years after its passage in 2017, the City Council approved a measure that gave officers the option of having all-civilian boards. It passed despite opposition by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which pointed to years of research showing civilians tend to be more supportive of police. Others questioned whether the civilians chosen for the panels would adequately represent the public’s interests.
In defending the amendment, then-Mayor Eric Garcetti said at the time that he trusted “everyday Angelenos and Americans to make big decisions.”
A review of examiners’ resumes shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that most are attorneys or professional arbitrators and tend to be older. On average, they earned their undergraduate degree in 1982, according to the resumes that included a graduation year. More than half were men.
About a third of examiners are former law enforcement officers or have worked closely with the LAPD, such as former Cmdr. Jeri Weinstein, who took leadership positions with police departments in Henderson, Nev., the West Valley and the Los Angeles Unified School District after leaving the department.
Others like Albert DeBlanc Jr. were LAPD officers long ago. DeBlanc retired from the force as a lieutenant in 1974 and later served on a blue ribbon panel that hired William J. Bratton as police chief in 2002. He went on to a career as an attorney representing Suge Knight, founder of Death Row Records and a convicted felon, and other celebrities, according to his biography.
The commission said it does not maintain records on the makeup of each Board of Rights panel. But an internal LAPD document that was reviewed by The Times shows a wide variation in the number of times examiners were selected to serve.
Some examiners sat on only three or four boards, while others such as David Shapiro, a partner at law firm Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, served on 17 boards, according to the document. Other frequent participants were Michael Diliberto, a veteran arbitrator who sat on 14 boards, and Sonia Amin, an immigration attorney based in Encino, who was part of 13 boards.
The document lists the names of the examiners for cases that went to the Board of Rights from 2015-20, but does not mention the final disposition.
Last month, two City Council members introduced a proposal that would scale back the involvement of civilians in such disciplinary hearings.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers across the city, has long argued that the traditional panels were unfair because the LAPD officials serving on them had an interest in supporting their boss, the chief of police.
Tom Saggau, a spokesman for the league, said officers’ due process is often overlooked in the current debate about revamping the department’s disciplinary system. Before the passage of Charter Amendment C, there was unspoken pressure on sworn examiners to go along with past chiefs’ decisions, he said, pointing out that the common thinking within the LAPD has long been that an officer who crosses a superior is unlikely to get promoted.
“We think civilian oversight is the most transparent way to get fairness,” Saggau said.
He disagreed with the suggestion that the union was somehow packing boards with more sympathetic examiners. Because so many of the chief’s decisions are being overturned, he said, it raises the question of whether discipline should have been meted out in those cases at all.
When asked about the makeup of disciplinary boards, Moore said he hoped the Police Commission would “continually evaluate the fairness and the professional judgment and articulation of those panels, and if they feel there’s bias in any fashion, then taken appropriate action.”
What the department wants, he said after the commission meeting Tuesday, is “this board process to be fair, to be balanced, to not be unduly swayed by acts of favoritism or to seek the favor of the chief or the favor of the league.”
Some of those serving as hearing examiners agreed.
Joseph Rouzan suspects the reason he hasn’t been selected for a board is because of his past career with the LAPD, where he once served as president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, the department’s association of Black officers. He thinks officers and their attorneys favor civilian examiners without a law enforcement background, banking on their unfamiliarity with department rules and regulations.
A civilian, for instance, is likely to write off an officer lying as a minor offense, Rouzan said, not realizing that LAPD personnel with credibility issues are not allowed to write reports or testify in court, forcing the department to take them off the streets and park them behind a desk at a police station.
Patricia “Pastor Pat” Strong sat on three panels in one year and said she signed on to be an examiner “to make a difference, to make sure that minority voices or African American voices are being heard.”
She remembered feeling frustrated during one panel discussion because her colleagues seemed more concerned about how their decisions might affect the livelihood of officers with families than on the potential community effect of leaving a problem cop on the department payroll.
“They were trying to be judge and jury, because they had the legal experience, and then they were all white, and I was Black, and they couldn’t see where I was going,” said Strong, who recalled her colleagues telling her, “‘Oh, give them a chance,’ and I said, ‘No, no no, if the chief says they were wrong, and I see they were wrong,’” they deserve harsher punishment, she said.
Tefank, of the Police Commission, said the challenge faced by city, department and police union leaders is coming up “with a system that will serve both constituencies.”
“This is not about the system; it’s about the outcome. If you like the outcome, then you will like the system,” he said.
Times staff writer Kevin Rector contributed to this report.