Curbing use of deadly force by police calls for new policies, training

Police get a pass because the law, recognizing the difficulty of the job, grants them extraordinary leeway

Here's what I'll give police:

The job is inherently dangerous, split-second decisions are hard to make under pressure, and sideline critics like me have the advantage of hindsight in second-guessing the use of deadly force.

But too often, it seems to me, we're left trying to understand how a minor infraction or mere suspicion of criminal activity could have escalated into a deadly confrontation, and why police didn't use better judgment.

Five years ago in Long Beach, police shot and killed an unarmed 35-year-old man when they mistook his garden hose nozzle for a gun.

Two days after an unarmed black teen was shot and killed last summer in Ferguson, Mo., by a white officer, two LAPD officers made what was cryptically called an "investigative stop" of a 25-year-old black man walking down the street in the Florence neighborhood. During a tussle in which the man may have reached for a police weapon, he was shot and killed. The victim, who was unarmed, was said by his family to be mentally ill.

And then, of course, we have two recent, particularly grotesque deadly force debacles. In Oklahoma, a white reserve officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, claiming he thought he had fired his Taser rather than his gun. And then there's the shocking video of a white South Carolina police officer repeatedly shooting an unarmed man in the back after pulling him over for a broken brake light.

What stands out about the last two cases is that the cops have been criminally charged. Generally speaking, police get a pass because the law, recognizing the difficulty of the job, grants them extraordinary leeway. They also fare well because they're investigated by their own brethren, because juries tend to like cops more than alleged criminals, or because prosecutors/politicians would rather not be known for taking down cops.

A Washington Post investigation has found that in thousands of officer-involved shootings over the last 10 years, only 54 officers were criminally charged, and among the resolved cases, the majority were cleared. More than three-fourths of the officers in deadly shootings were white. Two-thirds of the victims were minorities (all but two of them black), and the majority of them were unarmed.

Of course, it's only fair to note that in the vast majority of daily interactions between police and the public, there is no use of deadly force because most cops handle their difficult jobs extremely well. Restraint is the rule rather than the exception, even though they deal with a lot of hooligans.

But I'm guessing a lot of white folks can't watch that black man in South Carolina get shot in the back, like he's the target at a shooting range, without rethinking their reluctance to believe African American complaints about police brutality. Video has become ubiquitous since the Rodney King beating, and you can't help but wonder how many times officers lied or planted evidence to cover their misdeeds, as the Carolina officer appeared to have done.

Who wouldn't begin to distrust authority in a neighborhood of color, where "investigative stops" are commonplace even though there doesn't seem to be any such dragnet in tonier parts of the city?

"All of this, to me, stems from slavery," said civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who described typical modern policing as an extension of a "containment and suppression strategy."

Rice, who has worked with former and current LAPD chiefs Bill Bratton and Charlie Beck to reform the occupying-army model of policing — and believes there's been a lot of progress — said she interviewed hundreds of officers several years ago and asked them what it meant to get assigned to South Los Angeles.

"They said, 'That means it's stick time; we get to use our batons. Down there, you can get a righteous shoot,'" said Rice. She told me that white, Latino, black and Asian officers expressed the same sentiment, and said they felt even more emboldened in the housing projects because "crime is off the charts there," so police can stretch the limits of what it takes to stifle it.

Some of the officers were understandably scared, Rice said, given the levels of social and economic dysfunction and gang violence.

"It wasn't raging racism, it was just the gestalt about what you could do in different neighborhoods," Rice said. "We have neighborhood profiling … and the policing you do in South L.A. is completely different … than what you do when you get assigned to the Westside."

That began changing in 2011, Rice said, when Beck and housing officials linked up with Rice to begin the Community Safety Partnership, in which police form alliances with local leaders, sponsor youth programs and earn the support of people they need on their side.

"When the community trusts the police and wants to see them succeed, you get a lot less use of force. Police aren't having hair-trigger reactions because they think everyone coming at them is a threat," Rice said.

Right about now, in Los Angeles and beyond, we could use a lot more of that kind of thinking.

It's also time for police to refine the widespread broken-windows strategy — a full-bore crackdown on minor infractions to discourage serious crime — that can border on harassment and have deadly consequences, even if it does conveniently fill local treasuries with money from nuisance citations.

I'd like to put in a vote for the development and use of less lethal arms and ammo — such as a non-penetrating bullet now being tested in Ferguson, Mo. — that can incapacitate a suspect without killing him.

And it's time to review deadly force policies and training.

Stephen Downing, a retired LAPD deputy chief, said he thinks a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on use of force has led to varying interpretations that give police too little guidance and too much latitude in determining when to shoot.

In training and practice, Downing said, the standard has been pushed "closer to what is justified by law as opposed to what is expected by the community. Thus, we see more and more, 'He reached for his waistband' rather than, 'I opted to take cover, assess, develop a tactical alternative to use of deadly force and do all in my power to avoid taking a life.'"

And as for cops who negligently or maliciously cross the line, no more free passes. As Los Angeles attorney Walter Katz argued last week in a Harvard Law Review commentary, it's time for independent investigations of police shootings, to help restore police accountability and public trust.

What better way to deter unlawful use of deadly force than to subject police officers to the same rules of justice as other criminal suspects?

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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