The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday revised the way it evaluates police shootings, tying an officer's use of deadly force to his or her actions in the moments leading up to the incident.
The unanimous decision by the civilian panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department was made to bring the department in line with current legal standards. It also is expected to clarify commission rules that in the past have led to confusion over how the panel evaluates some officers who fire their weapons or use other deadly force.
With its vote, the five-member commission added a single line to its existing policy. It makes clear that a shooting can be found in violation of the department's deadly force policy if an officer's mishandling of the situation led to the shooting. Until now, the commission has generally focused on the narrow question of whether an officer faced a deadly threat at the moment he or she opened fire.
For decades, the commission has followed a multi-step process in officer shootings and other deadly force cases. Instead of making a single decision on whether the officer was right to fire, it divides incidents into separate parts.
It first decides if the officer's actions leading up to the shooting were acceptable. Then it judges the officer's decision to draw his weapon, and finally the shooting itself.
Most of the time, the process does not cause confusion. In the majority of cases, the commission clears officers of wrongdoing in each of the three areas. And when the commission does find that an officer made mistakes early in an encounter, it is usually clear that those missteps did not lead to the officer's decision to use deadly force.
But in some cases, the question arises whether the officer could have avoided using deadly force if he had made better decisions earlier in the encounter.
Alex Bustamante, the commission's inspector general who recommended amending the policy, emphasized in comments Tuesday that in some past cases the commission has looked at an officer's earlier actions when judging the shooting itself. Citing confidentiality rules, Bustamante said he could not provide any examples of such cases.
In other cases in recent years, however, the commission has opted not to make this link, raising questions about whether shooting cases have been judged consistently.
The shooting of Kamisha Davidson underscores the confusion.
Davidson, a mentally ill woman, was shot by an LAPD officer in November 2011. The commission faulted the officer and his partner for entering Davidson's apartment without waiting for mental health experts to arrive. They compounded the situation by confronting Davidson without first drawing up a plan for how to deal with her, and for failing to handcuff her, the commission found.
Nonetheless, the commission determined that the officer who shot Davidson was justified in using deadly force because at the moment the officer fired Davidson had allegedly brandished a plastic tube studded with screws.
Chief Charlie Beck, who reviews each deadly force case and makes recommendations to the commission, has adhered closely to the three-step process, drawing a stark line between the use of deadly force and what the officer did beforehand.
Beck said he would adjust his review of cases in light of the commission's vote.