L.A. Police Commission discusses guidelines for SWAT officers firing from helicopters before meeting ends in rancor

Weeks after Los Angeles police opened fire from a helicopter to end a five-hour standoff with an armed suspect in Sunland, police leaders discussed the guidelines for using such force during a contentious meeting of the city’s Police Commission on Tuesday.

Los Angeles Police Department Asst. Chief Beatrice Girmala told commissioners that a situation must meet a number of highly specific conditions before the department will consider opening fire from the air.

The department had weighed using the tactic only four times since 2012, Girmala said. But the May 8 shooting marked the first time an LAPD officer used it.

Girmala said current policy calls for police to open fire from a helicopter if a suspect in a violent crime poses an “extreme officer safety concern” and is on terrain that gives them a significant advantage, creating a situation in which “normal tactics would be ineffective.”

In the Sunland shooting, officers on the ground and in the air fired on the suspect, who had broken into a home, Police Chief Charlie Beck has previously said. It appears the suspect was fatally struck by gunfire from the air, Beck has said.

The decision to open fire airborne is made at high levels, Girmala said. In the May 8 case, Beck said an assistant chief discussed the matter with him before taking action. On Tuesday, Girmala said the “incident commander” at the scene of such a situation can also wave off the intervention of officers in the air.

Girmala’s comments were met with some criticism from attendees at the hearing, some of whom argued that use of force from helicopters could serve as a pretext to the increased use of helicopters for surveillance, or the deployment of drones by Los Angeles police.

The department doesn’t use drones. Seattle Police gifted the LAPD with two drones years ago, but they have never been launched and remain in storage, officials have said.

The meeting came to an abrupt end during Beck’s public comments. Matthew Johnson, the commission’s president, had been sparring with several activists who had been interrupting other speakers. His frustration boiled over when a woman seemed to rejoice after Beck said an officer had been seriously injured in a motorcycle crash early Tuesday morning.

Johnson said the meeting would not continue until the woman left, but she refused to depart. Police declared the meeting an “unlawful assembly,” and threatened the dozen or so activists in the room with arrest. The group eventually dispersed, and no arrests were made.

james.queally@latimes.com

Twitter: @JamesQueallyLAT

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