LOS ANGELES -- Most Los Angeles police officers who are suspended without pay for misconduct rely on an unusual union-run insurance policy to reimburse them for lost wages.
The pool of money -- thought to be the only one of its kind in the country and unknown to many outside the department's rank and file -- has come under sudden scrutiny from police watchdogs concerned about its effect on how officers are punished.
Anthony Pacheco, president of the civilian board that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department, raised the issue at a public meeting Tuesday, questioning whether the paybacks undercut the LAPD's disciplinary policies.
He called on department officials to examine the union's practice and to present their findings to the commission in coming weeks.
"This can be problematic," he said in an interview, acknowledging that he only recently learned of the union's reimbursements. "Where the suspension without pay is intended to have a punitive effect, it would undermine this level of discipline."
Officials for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents the department's roughly 9,300 rank-and-file officers, sternly defended the 7-year-old practice, saying it was needed to protect officers and their families from a department that historically has been quick to hand down harsh punishments.
"We are concerned that the commission is meddling and making inquiries into things that are union business," said Hank Hernandez, general counsel for the union.
More than 7,000 officers -- about 78% of union members -- pay $20 a month on top of their regular dues to be eligible for the reimbursements, Hernandez said.
Officers who opt not to appeal their suspensions to an independent review panel are repaid in full for up to 25 suspension days each year. The union provides officers who do challenge their suspensions with attorneys to represent them at the appeal hearings.
The union approves an average of five claims for reimbursement each week, said Hernandez, who declined to provide figures on how much money the union has paid out under the policy.
The union's decision in 2001 to provide the reimbursements and attorneys came at a time of fractured relations between the league and then-Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, who was widely criticized for what officers thought were too harsh and too frequent suspensions.
Union leaders said they launched the reimbursement program after Parks waged a successful campaign to change the City Charter to ban officers from representing their colleagues at appeal hearings.
Union officials said they believe the reimbursement program is the only one of its kind among police unions in the nation.
Under current Police Chief William J. Bratton and Deputy Chief Mark Perez, who is in charge of internal affairs, the LAPD has been slowly reforming its approach to discipline -- moving toward policies that emphasize retraining and counseling wayward officers as much as punishment.
Police Commissioner Alan Skobin dismissed concerns about the union's policy, saying the focus should be on the push to overhaul the larger discipline system, not the reimbursement program.
"Our goal should be to a have a process that officers have enough confidence and trust in that they don't feel they need to dig into their pockets to pay for this insurance," he said.
Skobin and Perez said they do not share Pacheco's concern that the union's reimbursements may water down the sting of a suspension. The punishment, they said, remains on the officer's record and can hold them back from promotions or pay raises.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, however, praised Pacheco for turning attention to the issue.
Peter Bibring, an attorney for the group, criticized the league's practice, saying it was tantamount to "turning unpaid suspensions into paid vacations." Bibring likened the reimbursements to the union's steadfast opposition to making discipline proceedings more open to the public.
"Police officers should have reasonable protections," he said. "But when a fair process identifies a bad apple, all the union is doing is fighting to make discipline secretive and ineffective. It hurts the majority of officers who are doing a fine job by weakening the public's faith in the department."
Joel Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.