By Alene Tchekmedyian, firstname.lastname@example.org
1:57 PM PST, November 23, 2012
A recent report on the Burbank Police Department's internal and use-of-force investigations found deficiencies in timeliness, evidence-gathering and spotting problems.
Released on Tuesday, the report — the first since the city hired the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review last year for continued departmental oversight — comes after a tumultuous time for a department that is still reeling from excessive force allegations and officer-involved lawsuits, as well as a federal investigation into alleged officer misconduct.
Despite the deficiencies, authors of the report noted some improvements when compared to “below base line” cases from previous years.
“The consensus we found, generally speaking, was that the efforts by your police department were really an objective search for truth,” said Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the review board, which primarily oversees the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. “That doesn't mean every investigation was perfect.”
The team of attorneys reviewed six internal investigations and 11 use-of-force incidents that were closed this year.
Gennaco's biggest concern was the length of time it took to complete the investigations. Of the six internal investigations reviewed, one — which consisted of just four interviews — had expired. The officer was never disciplined for failing to document a sexual battery allegation because the investigation wasn't finished on time.
State law gives officials one year to complete internal investigations.
“The worst thing you want to do is have an officer who should have been held accountable not be held accountable because of a technicality,” Gennaco said.
In another case, an officer was interviewed eight months after the incident in question and couldn't recall the details, making it difficult “to challenge the officer,” Gennaco added.
The majority of the investigations, however, were completed within a few months of the incident.
Interim Police Chief Scott LaChasse said the department is implementing changes to address Gennaco's concerns.
“Today, there's probably more strict instruction in terms of taking complaints and doing a full, complete investigation,” LaChasse said.
Overall, the report found that the department's use-of-force response protocols were thoughtful and thorough.
Gennaco praised the department for the quality of the letters responding to citizen complaints, adding that they were “straightforward but respectful” and personalized.
The number of citizen complaints, meanwhile, has decreased in recent years, from 54 in 2009 to 33 so far in 2012, said Burbank Police Capt. Ron Caruso.
Officers who use force are expected to immediately notify a sergeant, who in turn gathers witness statements, photos and other evidence. The sergeant is expected to compile a formal report, pass it on to the watch commander for review, who then hands it off to a captain.
A critical incident review board — which consists of a deputy chief and three captains — subsequently reviews the report.
While the panel review is a more in-depth response when compared to the response of similar-sized agencies, Gennaco said the panel could better identify trends.
For example, in about a third of the force cases reviewed, a foot pursuit led to use of force. Foot pursuits are inherently dangerous, as they can leave an officer alone with a suspect, feeling threatened and vulnerable, or out of range to call for back-up, he said.
He suggested department-wide training or policy review to address the trend.
“If you address the lead-up, you can reduce or suppress the likelihood force will be needed,” Gennaco said. “A safe officer — an officer who doesn't leave his partner, an officer who stays in radio communication during a foot pursuit — that officer is…less likely to be in blind alley with a suspect.”
Gennaco also discovered instances where suspects' injuries weren't prioritized. A suspect who'd been kicked by an officer — in the same spot where he'd been shot years earlier — complained of stomach pain three times before he was sent to a medical facility.
Another suspect who was intoxicated and uncooperative when arrested complained of pain for two days while in custody. It was discovered later that his finger was broken.
The report also revealed shortcomings in witness interviews. In one case involving use of force against a juvenile, the suspect's story differed from the officer's, but other officers who responded were not interviewed.
On multiple occasions, interviews with suspects occurred while they were still intoxicated or combative.
Despite the report's critique, Gennaco commended the city for its transparency.
“It's going to be uncomfortable for some — change always is, transparency always is,” Gennaco said. “The curtain's been thrown open, light has been allowed in.”