Photo by Hugh Williams.
These days, Anthony Pacheco is right in the thick of big city politics. But the president of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Board of Commissioners, which provides civilian oversight of the police, started out in small town America, in Trinidad, Colo., about 15 miles north of the New Mexico border. Family members of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations worked mining and farming jobs. Pacheco’s mother worked as a licensed practice nurse, while his dad held a variety of jobs, including fireman and short-order cook at his grandmother’s Mexican restaurant.
Calling himself “horrible at waiting tables,” Pacheco knew from an early age that he wanted to be a lawyer. While Southern Californians know him as a police commissioner since 2005, and its president since 2007, Pacheco’s full-time job position is as the deputy chair of the corporate defense and investigations practice group at the law firm of Proskauer Rose. He represents financial institutions, corporations and individuals in complex federal criminal and regulatory proceedings. The work draws on the experience he gained during a five-year stint as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, where he prosecuted drug, bank robbery, counterfeiting and other criminal cases.
Lawdragon: This must be a particularly challenging time to represent financial institutions, given all the animosity directed at them.
Anthony Pacheco: It’s really a thicket now as various government agencies and prosecutorial resources are being directed in these areas. It’s challenging to handle matters relative to disclosure – conveying to regulators and prosecutors what happened, keeping any suspected fraud in the appropriate context and ensuring investigations move forward without being swayed by emotion, public opinion or other external factors.
LD: A law firm partner works long hours. Why did you become interested in adding police commission work?
AP: I’ve been interested in policing for a long time. As a federal prosecutor, I was exposed to law enforcement by working with FBI, DEA and ATF agents. I found that work fascinating. Also, in 2000 I served as counsel to the Rampart Independent Review Panel investigating the Rampart corruption scandal, which increased my interest and experience in this area. I really had no grand plan to become a police commissioner. But with the arrival of a new mayor and the enthusiasm that brought, I felt it was a good time for me to get involved in a local way. It’s the best thing I’ve done – an extraordinarily amazing honor to serve in this position.
LD: So much has been written about the Rampart scandal. Can the public be comfortable that those days are behind us, and all the right lessons have been learned?
AP: The community can be comfortable that the system – with police training, procedures and appropriate supervisory staff with good judgment – is in place to prevent that type of thing from happening again. At the same time, comfort should never become complacency. We should always ask whether there are pockets of the department that are too isolated, as the anti-gang CRASH units of Rampart may have been. We have audits ongoing, an independent police commission and a very gifted inspector general. All of us have to remain vigilant.
LD: The May Day melee [the LAPD’s crackdown at a May 2007 pro-immigration rally involving numerous civilian injuries] was another embarrassment. Are you happy with department’s review and disciplinary reaction, which led to officer terminations and other sanctions?
AP: I am quite pleased by the fact that it was a more detailed and public process than we’d ever had before. But it’s not over. We continue to keep our eye on the ball relative to May Day and monitor the progress of the changes and training procedures that are being implemented, and we continue to get updates and reports in front of the commission. The final chapter is not yet written.
LD: It is difficult to be in a position of having to criticize the department without sounding like you’re bashing police officers?
AP: It can be. You have to be robust and sincere when investigating matters, and sometimes you’re going to be critical of the department – and when I’m critical I don’t hold back. But I’m not looking to slam the department. I think open discussion makes the department a better place. The old LAPD style was hunkering down, being isolationist and excluding a portion of the community, often minorities, from discussions.
Even the best-trained and most resourceful department cannot police Los Angeles without the consent of the citizenry. The only way to do it effectively is to bring the community along and to solicit its input. When I talk of the community, I am that: All five of the commissioners are civilians, and the chief of police reports to us. Ultimately I report to the four million people of Los Angeles.
LD: What are some of the big-picture issues the commission is focusing on?
AP: A number of issues always ebb and flow, but clearly we want to continue the already impressive reductions in crime. The way I view those statistics is that there are real-life people behind them – decreases in death and violent harm to individuals in our community. We’re always advancing the cause of police reform in Los Angeles, meeting the goals of accountability and transparency. The key balance is, on the one hand, having robust crime suppression, and on other hand, making sure the policing is constitutional. Achieving that balance is the critical measure of success in the department.
LD: Could the economy and budgetary issues create problems for these goals?
AP:I do have concerns that the department will continue to be undermanned and understaffed. For whatever reason, city leadership has historically not given tremendous resources to law enforcement. It’s been a struggle just to get the number of officers we have increased to present levels, which has happened with the help of the mayor and the leadership of Chief Bratton.
Just one example of something we’re mindful of is continuing to find money to pay for cameras in police cars. The community wants them because they help adjudicate complaints. Most of the officers I’ve spoken to want them as well, as they can be a resource for officers to defend themselves. The cameras also help us address some of the historical issues and allegations of biased policing.
LD: Do you want to stick around city politics? Any future plans you can share?
AP: My plan is to be president of the police commission until the end of July, when I’ll be termed out, but I’ll still have more years to serve on the commission. I intend to continue to push the reform agenda of transparency and accountability. I don’t have any interest in politics in terms of running for office, that’s really not something that appeals to me. I could see myself considering another appointed position. At Proskauer, my major focus is on continuing to grow the corporate defense and investigations practice group, and see that it continues to flourish.
LD: Do you recall when you decided you wanted to become a lawyer?
AP: Second grade, I think. I had read up about it after my mom bought me a couple of sets of encyclopedias… I liked the concept of speaking in public and making difficult arguments. I liked to think about ideas of justice and fairness. I guess I had the romantic ideas in my head about what a trial was like. As I grew up, I saw it as a very honorable way out of a small town and an opportunity to make something of my life.
LD: Since you grew up around a family Mexican restaurant, I have to ask what your favorite Mexican food is in the area.
AP: I’m more of a Tex-Mex guy. I like Don Antonio’s on Pico and Bundy, and also Teresitas in East LA. But the truth is that nobody makes it like my grandmother’s sauces or my dad’s cooking. Everybody’s a distant second.