As an attorney who has handled many police-brutality cases over the years, I was deeply disturbed by the news last week that the Los Angeles Police Department is training its officers to aim for the suspect’s head “as a last resort.” In the minority community this policy will result in an increase in the number of officer-involved killings. Things have not changed that much since 1974, when sociologist Paul Takagi wrote in his book, “Garrison State": “Police have one trigger finger for whites and one for blacks.”
The Police Department provides a vital service to the community, and it should have the cooperation of all of us. Certainly there is no denying that law enforcement is a difficult and dangerous job. In fact, law-enforcement officials justify the new shooting policy by citing the increased number of uncontrollable suspects under the influence of the drug PCP and the rise in sophisticated criminals who wear bulletproof vests. We do live in a violent society. However, the use of deadly force by police officers is a critical social problem that affects all of us, and we, the public, have the right to decide our community’s policy on this question. The Police Department should not be allowed to make such an important decision without a public forum that includes every interested segment of the community.
This issue must be dealt with squarely, because the LAPD and the county Sheriff’s Department have not yet seriously tackled the problem of police misconduct against minorities. Such “misconduct” ranges from racial insults, harassment and trumped-up charges to unlawful murder. And, although it may appear that the police-misconduct issue has been pushed to the back burner by the minority communities’ heightened efforts against crime, concern about police brutality has not gone away.
It would be foolish to argue that nothing has been tried over the years to address the problem. The controversies over so-called police “mistakes"--fatal shootings and beatings of black and Latino men, women and children, including persons who did not understand police commands given in English--have spurred public debate. However, a policy of shooting for the head is certain to increase the seriousness of such “mistakes,” since a bullet to the head is seldom an injury from which the victim recovers. Moreover, methods of creating better police-community relations, such as sensitivity training, remain woefully inadequate.
Without citizen participation in police department internal investigations, disciplinary action against officers involved in misconduct are ineffective. The powerful esprit de corps , or outright fear among police officers, keeps the potential whistle-blowers from speaking out.
Internal police investigations of citizens’ complaints virtually guarantee that the findings will exonerate the officers involved. I have witnessed investigations in which the primary purpose seemed to be to discredit the victim and witnesses, instead of determining whether misconduct really took place.
But perhaps the best evidence that the current internal disciplinary procedures are ineffective is the number of officers who are still on the force despite repeated citizens’ complaints against them for serious misconduct.
As an attorney in civil-rights cases against police officers, I have encountered officers with as many as 10 previous misconduct complaints in their personnel files. Under the circumstances it is not unreasonable to conclude that officers who have committed grievous misconduct or even unlawfully killed people are still wearing the uniform--and the gun.
I recently represented a young journalist, Roberto Rodriguez (no relation), in his successful lawsuit against several Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies. In March, 1979, Rodriguez was severely beaten, arrested and charged with assault. The incident occurred after Rodriguez took photographs of the officers as they were beating another young Latino while inzthe process of arresting him in East Los Angeles.
In response to Rodriguez’s charges, the officers testified that the Latino community was violent, gang-ridden and anti-police, and accused Rodriguez of inciting a potentially violent mob of “Mexicans” to take the prisoner away from their custody.
I have heard and read about similar justifications many times. But I was struck by the fact that this level of ignorance prevails to this day in a county with nearly 2 million Latinos. These men were still reciting the same racist stereotypes that were used by their predecessors when I was a teen-ager in Boyle Heights 30 years ago. Fortunately, the jury’s social consciousness was more highly evolved. My client won a substantial jury award. But all four of the officers still are on active duty in the Sheriff’s Department.
The use of deadly force cannot be reconciled with rational and humane social control, nor can it be restrained as long as police officers are not held accountable for their actions. Under these circumstances the “shoot for the head” policy is a threat to the citizens whom the officers are sworn to protect--particularly in minority communities. The citizens of the city and county of Los Angeles must put an end to this policy immediately. We cannot afford to keep quiet about it.