Steve Soboroff, citizens' voice on the LAPD

He's the top man at the L.A. Police Commission, perhaps the most scrutinized of city panels, tasked to work with and sometimes stand up to the Police Department.

Steve Soboroff

Steve Soboroff, President of the Los Angeles Police Commission, is photographed at the Los Angeles Times. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / September 18, 2013)

Steve Soboroff has rounded the bases in L.A. government, from the Harbor Commission to rec and parks, even a run for mayor. He's "Uncle Steve," the booster who practically drove the Endeavour space shuttle to its new home, a businessman who drove the Playa Vista development, chairman of the Weingart Foundation, a Big Brother. Now he's the top man at the L.A. Police Commission, perhaps the most scrutinized of city panels, "the citizens' voice" on policing matters, as its website pledges, tasked to work with and sometimes stand up to the LAPD. Apart from the LAPD wristbands he's handing out far and wide, his first project is lapel video cameras for cops because, in police work, as in so many things, seeing is believing.

LAPD shootings: In an Op-Ed interview with Los Angeles Police Commission President Steve Soboroff, Patt Morrison said the LAPD withholds the names of officers connected with any categorical use-of-force incident. Names of officers involved in shootings are not withheld. —

How did you get this gig?

I asked for it. I just popped an email to [Mayor] Eric [Garcetti] saying I will go on the Police Commission if you're interested, and that started it.

Before I wrote that email, I watched [recordings of] commission meetings. I'm a communicator and a problem-solver, and I wanted to make sure [the commission] was my style, or if you just had to be tough and lawyerly. My deal is leave the extremists on both sides out of the picture and work in the middle.

What did you think of those earlier commissions?

It looked to me like, with few exceptions — like Rick Caruso, Bert Boeckmann, Alan Skobin — [it] was very reactive, very "OK, here's what they're giving us and we have to analyze this," versus proactive. I read what the charter says about the Police Commission — it is not a micromanager. It is a board of directors.

I wanted to define myself in this role versus having my involvement be defined [as], oh, just sit there for six months and soak it in. Huh-uh. When I was being considered for the commission, I met with 25 or 26 people. John Mack, who is a god to me, made a list for me of people to talk to: commanders, some rank and file, the inspector general, the Police Protective League. Greg Boyle, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Connie Rice. I did homework. So I felt confident. I felt, this is a natural progression for me.

There were communications issues between the prior city attorney and the department and the prior mayor's office and the department that do not need to be carried on now. So I've been Uncle Steve to both sides, saying you guys need to get together now.

At the commission meeting, we're hearing how great our risk management is [regarding police liability lawsuits]. I said: "The people across the street [at City Hall], it's their money when somebody sues and wins. That comes out of the general fund. Would they say you're really doing well? Because I don't think they would. I'd like you to give this presentation to them and have them give you input, and together we're going to figure this out.

You're getting lapel video cameras, thanks to private donations from people you've known a long time.

The body cameras — they're huge. They're going to save millions [in liability costs]: officers not having to spend hours and hours in court [on lawsuits], paperwork, payouts.

The Times wrote in the spring about the head of internal affairs being replaced. He said he had placed "strategy over penalty" in disciplining officers. Would the commission look at that, and change it if the data suggest change?

Results are the end game, and we will monitor them. From the story, it looks like the chief's personnel moves (which we don't micromanage) were well thought out.

The department withholds the names of every officer connected with any categorical use-of-force incident, and not just those involving guns. Is that the right policy?

There are two sides to all these stories, and there comes a time when the names should be released, but I don't think they should be released too early. Officer X used his baton — someone said he overused it. Should that be in the paper without going through any due process, without the inspector general, without looking at [video]? No, I don't think so.

Use of force is a sensitive issue.

In the city of L.A., there are about 500 people arrested a day. That's not a lot, when you look at other big cities. Of those 500, five have some sort of use of force. Five out of 500. So there's 495 peaceful arrests, which means officers are doing their job perfectly. Every four days, one of those five is a categorical use of force, which will ultimately come to the commission, where somebody makes a complaint.

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