There may be no other big city in the United States where police shootings are as scrutinized as in Los Angeles. Detectives of the L.A. Police Department and prosecutors investigate each one; high-ranking officers examine the findings and decide whether a shooting is in or out of policy; the police chief reviews that judgment, and the Police Commission issues a final decree. Overseeing it all is the inspector general, appointed to probe allegations of misconduct.
Despite that scrutiny, the result of various waves of scandal, a Times review of two decades of officer-involved shootings found the process was often hijacked early on by LAPD investigators who whitewashed their findings, burying evidence that was at odds with what officers recounted. As a result, the civilian watchdogs on the Police Commission, often misled by reports that discredit or omit important evidence, have declared almost 90% of police shootings "in policy" since 1985. Many of those shootings ultimately resulted in multimillion-dollar jury verdicts or legal settlements as the truth about the shootings came to light.
Aside from its immorality and defiance of the law, the subterfuge makes it harder to rid the department of trigger-happy cops. Worse, it damages the credibility of the Police Department in the communities that most need its protection.
Every shooting report eventually found to be incomplete or untrue feeds a paranoia that hampers police ability to solve crimes. Why cooperate in an investigation that may ultimately turn on an officer's lie? When everyone on the block sees an unarmed neighbor shot by police, without cause or consequence, the message that travels through the neighborhood is "don't trust the police." The cases uncovered by Times reporters Scott Glover and Matt Lait reflect an institutional arrogance that only makes things tougher for the cop on the street.
To his credit, Chief William J. Bratton seems committed to change. In August, he reorganized and beefed up the unit that investigates police shootings. The new team will highlight, rather than hide, witness accounts and physical evidence that contradict police, he says. That should help the Police Commission see things more clearly. The commission should also broaden its role and evaluate decisions that lead to shootings. Officers are allowed to shoot to protect themselves or others, but overly aggressive or poorly trained officers sometimes force suspects into unnecessary confrontations.
Despite two decades of reform, the cop-as-gunfighter image still haunts the LAPD. Witness the tale this week of yet another Rampart-spawned rogue officer who led a crew of crooked cops on a four-year crime wave. But a small band of renegade cops does not a department make. A process tilted to protect them is a greater shame.