By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The union representing Los Angeles police officers filed a lawsuit on Thursday accusing Police Chief Charlie Beck of exerting undue influence over a panel that hands down discipline to officers in the nation's second-largest city.
The federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeks a court order to alter the Los Angeles Police Department's three-person Board of Rights, which hears dozens of cases a year and imposes penalties up to termination. The union wants to change the board's makeup to an all-civilian panel from its current structure of two police captains and one civilian.
With the captains answering to Beck, the chief and his top commanders can pressure for stiffer penalties than officers deserve, according to the lawsuit, a situation described as a violation of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of due process.
Representatives of the Los Angeles Police Department declined comment.
The lawsuit came as law enforcement officers in the United States face greater scrutiny over the use of force, particularly against minorities. A number of deaths of minority suspects have triggered unrest in many U.S. cities in the last two years.
"What this indicates is a fissure, some kind of split going on within LAPD itself between top brass and the rank-and-file," said University of Southern California law professor Jody Armour.
The lawsuit by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union for officers, cited separate legal actions filed in 2014 and 2015 by four captains who served on the Board of Rights and contended they were pressured to penalize officers.
Craig Lally, president of the union, said it was unusual for his organization to call for the removal of police officials from a disciplinary panel, but they believe it will improve the process.
"The two captains can easily outvote the civilian, particularly if they're concerned about how their ruling may impact their future career prospects," Lally said.
Disciplinary proceedings at the LAPD are confidential, and union officials declined to discuss any particular cases where they contend officers were unfairly treated.
The Black Lives Matter movement has protested the department's handling of police use-of-force cases.
"Charlie Beck has been getting it from both sides," law professor Armour said, adding that activists are demanding more reforms while elements within the department have been resistant.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)