Top LAPD oversight official may leave one troubled police department for another

FILE - A Portland Police officer watches protesters rallying at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Sept. 26, 2020, in Portland, Ore. An Oregon lawmaker has introduced a bill that would require law enforcement officers complete at least two years of postsecondary education. The bill would push back against the recent trend of lowering police hiring standards by requiring two years of postsecondary education for departments with less than 50 officers and a bachelor's degree for departments with more than 50. (AP Photo/Allison Dinner, File)
A police officer watches protesters outside the federal courthouse in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 26, 2020. (Allison Dinner / Associated Press)

LAPD inspector general Mark Smith is a finalist for a job overseeing court-ordered reforms at the Portland, Ore., police department, officials in the Pacific Northwest city announced this week.

If hired, Smith would serve as an independent monitor to settle a decade-old review of the Portland Police Bureau by the U.S. Department of Justice, which previously accused the city's police of engaging in a continuing pattern of excessive force during arrests of people with mental illness. Smith's business, MPS & Associates, was named among three finalists named in a press statement released Monday by Portland officials.

The other two finalists are Katie Zafft, with the Crime and Justice Institute, a Boston-based consulting group that analyzes local law enforcement, and Darryl Neier, a former prosecutor who now works for a New Jersey public safety think tank.

The city of Portland and the Justice Department agreed last November to appointing an independent monitor to oversee remaining reforms from their 2014 settlement. According to local news reports, the city had already adopted numerous reforms, including overhauling its Taser policy and creating a mobile unit that responds to behavioral crisis-related calls.

The city's pick will be announced on March 24, the press release said.

Smith was appointed inspector general of the Los Angeles Police Department in 2018 after serving as a constitutional policing advisor for then-L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, where he served in a similar role advising the Sheriff's Department on internal investigations and disciplinary matters. He also investigated shootings by deputies. It was his second stint with the LAPD inspector general's office, where he worked for four years as a special investigator after graduating from the UCLA law school in 2005.

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He served in police watchdog roles in Chicago and Oakland, before returning to Los Angeles to work under McDonnell.

As with the Sheriff's Department, the LAPD inspector general's office is supposed to play a crucial role in civilian oversight of the nation's third-largest police force. His office, which is independent of the LAPD, monitors a wide array of matters, including complaints against officers, department practices and shootings and other serious uses of force by police.

The inspector general is appointed by the all-civilian Police Commission and Smith's office acts as its investigative arm, including handling complaints made against the chief of police. However, it can't initiate its own investigations without approval from the commission, which oversees the department.

In the past few years, the office has released audits of the department's use of facial recognition and of the LAPD's secretive disciplinary system, which it found was resulting in many proposed penalties being downgraded.

But Smith has also weathered criticism that his office has been slow to respond to complaints and has produced fewer reports than previous inspectors general. In the position, those in his shoes have sometimes publicly clashed with city and department officials over policy matters.

In a resume included with Monday's announcement, Smith said that he is responsible for running the 35-person office tasked with "providing independent and effective civilian oversight of LAPD."

He listed among his references current Police Commission President Erroll Southers and recently departed LAPD Chief Michel Moore.

If Smith were to get the Portland job, he would leave the LAPD at a tricky crossroads as it searches for its next chief. Moore unexpectedly announced his retirement in January, after roughly six years as the city's top cop. An interim chief, Dominic Choi, stepped into the role this week, and will remain on the job while the city conducts a nationwide search for a permanent replacement.

Richard Tefank, the commission's executive director, has also said he intends to retire next month.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.