L.A.'s process for reviewing police shootings stinks

LAPD Chief Beck will decide how to discipline officers whose actions he cleared in Ezell Ford's shooting

The questions dragged on and on.

Why did police stop 25-year-old Ezell Ford in South Los Angeles on Aug. 11, 2014, and why did they end up shooting the unarmed man to death?

Few answers were forthcoming. No full explanation from police or anyone else about the death of a young man diagnosed, according to his mother, with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Try to put yourself in this situation.

The police shoot and kill a member of your family and you can't get answers about why it happened, other than a vague explanation: Your son was stopped and then struggled with police.

In the name of protecting the investigative process and the privacy of the officers — legitimate concerns, to a point, but grossly overplayed here — you are told almost nothing.

You hold a funeral not knowing why your son is going to his grave.

Witness accounts differ, nothing is conclusive, and the autopsy report is withheld for more than four months.

That's the way the police review system works in Los Angeles and much of California, and the public sits in the dark, waiting on findings it has no good way to judge.

Last week, the Times broke a story saying that LAPD Chief Charlie Beck had determined that two officers involved in the shooting of Ford had acted within department policy, having stopped the young man because he had been walking away from a group of people toward an alley known for drug use.

Beck found the shooting justified because of evidence that Ford — who had no narcotics on him according to a source — got his hand on the holster holding one officer's gun.

The Police Commission's inspector general, however, raised concerns about whether there had been legal justification to stop Ford in the first place and determined the officers had acted inappropriately.

And even with that, details of what happened remained murky, the public grew restless and Mayor Eric Garcetti was following his usual M.O. — high controversy, low visibility.

The Police Commission, meanwhile, reviewed matters in private, and the public was left to wonder what was going on behind the scenes, and whether political pressure might influence an ultimate finding one way or another. And this process, as maddeningly long and secretive as it is, happens to be par for the course.

"I'd say currently, things here in Los Angeles are as transparent as mud," said Merrick Bobb of the Police Assessment Resource Center.

"There's too little information about officer-involved shootings and other uses of deadly force. It's hard enough just to get the name of the officer involved, and that's [because of] a combination of state law and other union-driven protections that have been enacted into law."

On Tuesday, Ford's mother, Tritobia Ford, appeared before the Police Commission and made a plea for justice.

"He wanted to live," she said of her son. "He walked. He walked the streets. I didn't want him to walk the streets around there because I know it was unsafe. That was his right. And he didn't deserve to die for it."

A few hours later, in a dramatic turn of events, the civilian commissioners stepped up and unanimously delivered a stiff rebuke to Beck. The commission decided, in essence, that it was a bad shooting.

The board found fault with the decisions by Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas to draw their weapons. And it faulted Wampler for unacceptable tactics and for opening fire on Ford. Some details of the case finally came out in the inspector general's report.

I was in the room when the commissioners announced their findings and had the impression that Beck, who was also there, looked like he'd just been backhanded.

Now, in a strange twist to a bizarre process, Beck will be required to decide how to discipline the officers whose actions he cleared.

Does he fire a cop whose actions he had decreed to be within policy?

Does he leave him on the force when the Police Commission said the use of deadly force was not called for?

Typical of the secretive way the city handles these matters, we don't know when Beck will make those decisions, nor will we necessarily get an explanation as to his deliberations.

"It's a completely corrupt system," said Melina Abdullah, a Cal State L.A. professor who attended the hearing Tuesday.

Abdullah was one of the protesters who briefly blocked Garcetti's departure from his Windsor Square home Monday. She watched him roll up the tinted window of a tank-sized SUV that drove away after the encounter with demonstrators.

"It's not just the family, it's also the community that has been stalled and scarred in effect," ACLU attorney Peter Bibring said of the Ford shooting and official response to it. "The community needs to understand why an unarmed man is killed. Is it justified? Is it not? The law puts a lot of that out of view of the public."

There are some states, said Bibring, "where investigations are all public record." And that transparency can enhance police accountability and build the community trust needed to give police citizen allies in reducing crime.

Rob Saltzman, one of the L.A. police commissioners, told me he thinks hearings on police conduct should be public, not private. But legislative action would be required to shine more light on the process, and the police lobby is powerful and opposed.

That doesn't mean nothing else can be done. Beck can be more tactful and open in answering questions about police shootings without violating the law or jeopardizing investigations, and Garcetti can tell him to do so or else.

Ten months is far too long to wait, and this case isn't over yet. Even when Beck decides how to discipline the officers, he's not required to offer a public explanation.

It's not a process anyone can trust.

Twitter:@LATstevelopez

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
79°