The Los Angeles Police Commission’s to-do list just got top-heavy, thanks to one significant new task. With the early retirement of Chief Charlie Beck, it’ll be up to the commission to interview candidates for the job of running the police department in the nation’s second-biggest city, and then forwarding the finalists’ names to Mayor Eric Garcetti for his decision.
The commission has had its hands full already, with the five-member board being upbraided by protesters at its public meetings over questionable police shootings and the use of drones. One of the five is Sandra Figueroa-Villa. For about 40 years, she’s been executive director of El Centro del Pueblo, an Echo Park community service group whose work on behalf of ending gang violence has informed her five years on the Police Commission. Now she’ll put her hand to the job of choosing the person who, as she likes to joke, will have four stars to her five.
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Los Angeles will be searching for a new police chief. What qualities will you and the Police Commission be looking for?
The Police Commission, as we speak, is putting together several meetings to get input from the community. I really am looking forward to listening to the communities and getting their input. There’s a lot of voices out there with their opinions.
We’ve had two chiefs from outside the department, one pretty successful, one not successful at all. Do you think it has to be someone from inside the Los Angeles Police Department, someone who understands the unique characteristics of the city and the department?
I know the mayor has put forward publicly that he wants a national search. We have 25 other cities that have chiefs from the LAPD that might be interested in coming back to Los Angeles. And we have great and qualified people inside.
Los Angeles is one of the biggest Latino cities in the western hemisphere. We have had two African American chiefs, but no Latino chief, no woman chief. Are you going to be considering that in particular?
I’m not going to be looking for any particular ethnicity or gender. I get the politics. I’m very political. I love the politics and I have my own personal view. However, I am on the Police Commission and I come in fair, and with an open mind.
Have you started to hear from people about what they want from a new chief?
Some call and say it’s time for a Latino chief, others that it’s time for a woman chief, others we have to build more trust — a visionary, somebody who’s going to keep the promises made to the immigrant communities and the African American community, the communities of color.
[Commission President Steve Soboroff], the minute the chief told us he’s retiring, the campaign started, people started calling. Mr. Soboroff said, I talked to 30 people in one evening! So people want to have input in this process.
Chief Beck announced his early retirement. How would you characterize what he said that he’s leaving undone?
He said it’s time, it’s the right time for a new leader. Hopefully it’s someone that could continue that path, but also with a vision to make it better. I’ve been in my position at my agency for over 40 years. I think about that all the time. That’s my heart.
This department is Chief Beck’s heart and soul. And he loves Los Angeles and he loves the LAPD, and he wants to make sure he leaves it in the right hands.
I know for a fact that Chief Beck was very thoughtful about him leaving on his own terms. No one pushed him out.
L.A. Police Commissioner Sandra Figueroa-Villa
I can see it’s very painful for him to retire, but there’s also that side of him that he cares and loves [the LAPD] so much, he knows it’s time for him to go. He wants to be with his family — that’s the other great thing, he’s a grandfather now. It’s priorities.
And the dirt biking, too.
Well, he mentioned the dirt biking.
An issue in the national consciousness now, and has always been in Los Angeles’ consciousness, is the relationship between the LAPD and immigration enforcement. The LAPD, since Special Order 40 was issued by Chief Daryl Gates in 1979, has said we’re not going to do the immigration department’s work for it. We’re here to police Los Angeles. We want anybody who lives in Los Angeles to trust us as police officers. How is this shaking out, with the kind of enforcement we’re seeing under the Trump administration?
I’m a member of the subcommittee on immigration, and the special order hasn’t changed — the opposite. We honor the special order. We don’t ask and we don’t stop and ask for status, and we shouldn’t. The problem that I see is that people think that [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is the police department.
I read that ICE has on occasion put “police” on their jackets.
They do. I believe there was a letter the mayor or the chief sent to ICE, asking them to take that off. And we received a letter back and they said no, we won’t. We are police.
Well, [that] they are law enforcement.
That’s a little different in most people’s eyes.
That’s the problem. And it comes from Washington down.
We had a piece in the Los Angeles Times op-ed section that said activists had been quoted as saying that the early retirement of Chief Beck was their doing, that they were the ones who had shown up at the Police Commission meetings, that they were the ones who were angry about police shootings and discipline matters.
I know for a fact it wasn’t the activists forcing the action. When I became a police commissioner, I came in with open eyes. I thought, wow, I could really connect with what some of the activists are saying. I get the fear of police, I get all of what they were saying. But now being on the commission and seeing how they conduct themselves and the behavior, I know for a fact that Chief Beck was very thoughtful about him leaving on his own terms. No one pushed him out. The activists did not push him out. They had nothing to do with him wanting to leave.
What would you like to see the LAPD change about video camera footage, and being more forthcoming about officer-involved shootings?
I can’t really talk about the video release because our commission is currently revising and looking at a policy that’s going to come out. Most people don’t know that since 2005, we are probably the most transparent police department in the state.
The chief of police prepares a report to the commission on whether the officer-involved shootings were in policy, out of policy, looking at tactics, and once we adjudicate it, he, with the officers’ names redacted, posts the decision online. We have an inspector general who also looks at the report.
When you hear that we don’t release officer names, the only time that we don’t is when it would put an officer’s life in danger. We’re constantly looking at transparency and ways that we can be more transparent, but there are laws that protect the police officers.
The news that Chief Beck released a few days ago about the profile of homicide victims in Los Angeles found that they’re young, they’re nonwhite and they’re poor. What was your reaction?
My reaction is that 60% of those are gang-related. I started doing gang work back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, when it was lots of gang violence. We are not seeing enough outcry from the community whenever there’s a gang killing. Back in the day, you organized parents of the kids being killed, and you worked. We used to go to the City Council to get more resources in our communities. So you have those programs [now], and then you have all these other programs and activities that the LAPD operates.
How do you get the larger part of Los Angeles to care about this? You can read these statistics and say, it’s gang members killing other gang members. Why should I care about that?
Because it does affect the community. We’re dealing with kids in poverty, kids that live in single-family households. There’s kids living in their cars with their moms and dads. [El Centro del Pueblo] gets to counsel and refer and build resources to make families’ lives better. If we can save one of those kids from being attracted to that lifestyle, it’s a big deal.
You mention kids living in cars with their parents. Homelessness has become such an exponentially larger problem in L.A. What’s the role of the LAPD in that?
People talk about how they should not be social workers, they should be cops. The times are changing. I was on the homeless subcommittee for the commission and we talked about the role of police and homelessness, and you have to be empathetic. You have to think about, what if that’s your mother, your father, your brother?
So I really support that our cops are involved, but on the other hand, the Mental Health Department is a county department. They’re the ones that have big money; they’re the ones that should be leading the charge.
How did your perception of the LAPD change after your years on the commission?
I lived through the [LAPD police corruption] Rampart scandal. I lived in Pico-Union. I grew up in South L.A. So I’ve lived everywhere. My experience with the Police Department was not great. I can tell you stories of when the senior lead officer program first started, they just walked into our house looking for my son.
It was just a totally different department then. They did not work with agencies like mine, who work with gang members, because they were not good citizens. I had an experience where the gang officers came to my agency and just wanted to come in, and I said no, you can’t do that. They said yes, we can, and sort of pushed me aside and went inside.
I was shocked when the mayor asked me to sit on this commission. I didn’t think about it. I said yes. Then I realized what I’d said yes to, and that forced me to take this role on with an open mind and get to understand why the police do what they did.
I never thought I’d say this: We’ve come a long way as a police department. We have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way. I’ve really met so many officers. They don’t join the force to shoot anybody. They join it to help people.
A lot of people in Los Angeles don’t even know there is a police commission. How would you explain its job to those people?
I’d tell them that I wear five stars and Charlie Beck wears four. I am one of five bosses, so I have an influence, a voice directly with the chief.
If the community needs something, they can call me. And because I’ve been around so long, and know people in this city, any interaction they have with the department that’s not pleasant, I get to deal with. Relationships and building trust — that’s key. There’s more trust, a lot more interaction, a lot more collaboration with the Police Department.
Police shootings generate the most passionate, the angriest, the most tearful public comments at your meetings. What does the commission plan to change to address the frequency of these shootings and maybe underlying training issues?
I’m on the use-of-force subcommittee, with [Commissioner] Matt Johnson, and we have been looking at our de-escalation policies, the tactics that lead up to shootings, looking at other ways to deal with [confrontations] without having to pull out your weapon. We get to see all the evidence and all the videos, and those officers’ lives are on the line, and sometimes that is their only defense: They have to shoot or get killed.
There’s public anger and fear and I understand it. I don’t think that’s really changed. But I know what it’s like to hug a mom whose kid was just killed by a police officer. I listen to the moms and the parents and the families and it’s a tragedy.
But it’s also a tragedy on the side of the police officer. I’m really concerned that we take care of our officer right after that happens as we care for the [victim’s] family. It has to be very balanced on both sides.
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2/8: Sandra Figueroa-Villa, speaking about how the LAPD used to operate, said in this interview that police "just walked into our house looking for my son." She didn't mean to imply that this was her personal experience. She was recounting the story of a client of the El Centro del Pueblo organization.