Setting rules on L.A. police stops

Conflicting findings after the Ezell Ford shooting raise questions over what constitutes a reasonable stop

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck and the L.A. Police Commission sent mixed messages Tuesday about the Ezell Ford shooting, reflecting a significant disparity between what the department's uniformed leaders think is a reasonable excuse for police to stop a suspect on the street — and what the department's civilian overseers believe. It's a dangerous difference of opinion, because it leaves city cops with inconsistent guidance about how to do their jobs.

According to Beck, the shooting of the 25-year-old mentally ill man — and the events leading up to it on Aug. 11 — were appropriate and defensible. Ford was stopped near a group of known gang members in a location known for drug activity, and officers said they thought from his behavior that he was trying to get rid of drugs when they approached him.

The Police Commission, however, concluded that officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas violated department policy when they stopped Ford in the first place, setting into motion the struggle that led to his death. The commission also determined that Wampler had no justification for shooting Ford, but that Villegas did.

It now falls to Beck to determine, based on the findings of the Police Commission, whether the officers should be reprimanded, suspended or fired. (Just as it falls to Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to determine whether the officers should be criminally prosecuted.) We strongly urge him to devise a punishment that fits the offense, not one that makes a political statement. In the past, the chief has openly defied the will of the commissioners by handing out mild punishments or no discipline at all.

Whatever happens, this mustn't be the end of the discussion about the use of deadly force, about race relations, or about what constitutes a legitimate stop of a suspect. Already, the divide between the chief and the commission over the appropriateness of stopping Ford has put the city and its police force in an untenable position that Craig Lally, president of the police union, summed up best: “What is an officer supposed to do?”

Good question. Here are some others: What constitutes the “reasonable suspicion” that police are required to have before they stop a suspect? Should officers ignore their hunches if they don't have more tangible evidence of wrongdoing? How can training be added to minimize the likelihood that such incidents will occur in the future? It's imperative that the chief clear up the rules for officers, who face life-and-death decisions.

L.A. policymakers and police are now part of a national dialogue on what constitutes a reasonable stop, and when, if ever, profiling and stop-and-frisk techniques are appropriate law enforcement tools. The LAPD, which has been through decades of crisis and reform, and which has made significant but not-yet-sufficient strides in improving community relations, must be a leader in this national discussion.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has been largely silent on the issue. It's time for him to step up and help the chief negotiate the aftermath and help assure the public that their concerns about police methods and the use of force haven't been ignored.

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