Full disclosure: bad idea whose time hasn’t comeBy Earl Ofari Hutchinson, ColumnistArticle Last Updated: 12/22/2007 09:09:34 PM PST
There’s a telling scene in “American Gangster” in which a New York undercover cop turns in $1million found in the trunk of a numbers-runner’s car. In the film, the honest cop would have gotten a warmer reception from his fellow vice had he been a convicted pedophile. He had obliterated the encased-in-stone, unwritten rule among dirty cops that it’s OK to scam, steal or outright snatch dirty money from crooks, and other cops won’t squeal.
As it turned out, this was mostly screen stuff. It was later revealed that the cop who refused to grab the filthy cash turned out to be the norm, not the exception among his undercover peers. Most New York cops played it straight as an arrow when it came to dealing with dirty money. They did it without having to publicly tell how they spent every cent they made. I’m not sure if any of the five Los Angeles Police Commission members checked out this film, but they are plowing ahead to adopt a very tentative and even shakier plan that requires LAPD gang and narcotics officers to disclose every nit and jot of their personal finances.
The rationale is twofold. Full disclosure is supposedly the final part of the tormenting ordeal to get the LAPD out from under the federal consent decree, and full disclosure apparently is the only thing that supposedly will satisfy the federal judge who’s overseeing implementation of the decree.
Federal judge or no, in this case the full-disclosure rule is a classic example of a well-intentioned police reform that will do far more harm than good. No other big-city police department imposes this heavy-handed requirement on its officers. That includes the cities that have been under consent decrees like L.A.’s, and eventually got them lifted.
There is absolutely no fail-safe guarantee that the public disclosure of an officer’s bank accounts, mortgage payments and tax returns can be protected from the prying eyes of anyone who seeks access to their financial transactions. Nor is there reason to think it would uncover and weed out dirty cops.
The cops who took bribes, payoffs and snatched the cash of dealers and bookies in New York didn’t sprint to their bank and dutifully fill out a deposit slip and deposit their dirty cash in their equally very easily subpoenaed bank account.
The best example that the commission’s overly broad full-disclosure rule would do nothing to nail bad cops is the case of Rafael Perez, the LAPD poster boy for dirt and abuse in the department’s undercover ranks. There is no evidence that Perez took his dirty stash and became a respected investor in stocks, bonds, CDs and REITs. He’d have been crazy to do that anyway. That would have instantly set off loud bells and whistles in Internal Affairs, in the D.A.’s Office, and among federal prosecutors.
The Police Protective League predictably hit the ceiling when the commission announced that it might enact the disclosure rule. The league warned that the move could trigger a mass police stampede out of the gang and narcotics units. More than 500 officers would transfer, retire or try to get on with other police departments, they claim, wrecking the morale of the officers left behind. The league’s bluster will and should go nowhere. It makes a potential bad situation even worse.
This is the kind of rhetoric that’s made me a fierce critic at times of the league for its much too often reflexive blind eye to police misconduct, and its loud defense of officers who commit abusive acts.
But on the full disclosure rule, the league is certainly right to wage a political fight against it. The loss of dozens, let alone hundreds, of good officers who have played a big role in the plummeting of crime in Los Angeles to the lowest level in the past decade would be a disaster. Graft and corruption are anathema to police departments that rely on their reputation for integrity and honesty. That means zero tolerance toward corruption.
The way to ensure that is the same way the department combats police misconduct – through rigorous screening of new officer candidates, tough performance evaluations, tight supervision and management, and strict and prompt discipline for officers who break the department rules and the law. The rules and the law in this case are crystal clear. Graft is a crime that must be vigorously punished. In fact, police officers who are tempted to tap the illicit till should be even more vigorously punished.
After all, they’ve taken a public oath to serve. A full financial-disclosure law that, in effect, discloses nothing won’t make any officer who forgets that oath any less amnesiac. The Police Commission should think hard about what a full disclosure rule will but mostly won’t do.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst and a frequent contributor to the Daily News.