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Playing politics with cops’ safety

Jack Dunphy is the pseudonym of a Los Angeles police officer who writes a column for National Review Online.

THE LOS ANGELES Police Commission’s finding last week that an officer’s shooting of a 13-year-old was “out of policy” puts it on a political collision course with Police Chief William J. Bratton. More important, it places the commission at odds with a large majority of the police officers it purports to lead.

After an internal LAPD investigation, Bratton concluded that the Feb. 6, 2005, shooting in South Los Angeles was a tragic but proper use of force. When Devin Brown lost control of the stolen Toyota Camry he was driving and crashed onto a sidewalk, he backed the car toward Officer Steve Garcia, who had gotten out of his police car and was standing next to its open door. In response, Garcia shot and killed Brown. Only later was it discovered that Brown was 13.

Responding to political pressure, the Los Angeles Police Department modified its use-of-force policy to prevent such incidents. The department now all but prohibits officers from firing at cars whose drivers attempt to run them over.

Instead, officers are trained to get out of the way of the oncoming vehicle. The policy is widely derided among the rank and file because it forces officers to leave what may be their only available effective cover -- the ballistic panels inside their car doors -- and run into the open. It also allows fleeing suspects what amounts to a free shot: They can try to run down police officers without fear of being shot at.

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But the Police Commission evaluated Garcia’s action on the basis of the previous policy, which generally discouraged firing on moving vehicles, and both a use-of-force review panel and Bratton found that Garcia acted properly. As such, it was politics, not tactics, that determined the panel’s ruling, because there is nothing in the background of the members who voted in the 4-1 majority that would suggest they possess any qualifications to evaluate an officer’s tactics.

The commission, established in the 1925 City Charter, functions as a board of directors for the LAPD, while the chief of police serves as its chief executive. Past commissions were sometimes accused of acting as a rubber stamp for the decisions made by politically powerful chiefs. In his campaign for mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa promised to appoint police commissioners who would provide vigorous oversight to the department.

But commissioners are selected much less for their expertise on police matters than for their relationships with the mayor and, of course, for their ability to fill a slot on an unwritten but steadfastly observed diversity checklist. Interestingly, the only dissenting vote on the Brown shooting was that of Alan J. Skobin, the sole holdover from the Hahn administration. Skobin has served for more than 20 years as a reserve deputy sheriff. He is the only commissioner with any real-world law-enforcement perspective on what it feels like to face a deadly assault or to point a weapon at someone and decide in the blink of an eye whether to pull the trigger.

More galling than the ruling was its messenger: commission President John Mack, who for years has been one of the city’s most outspoken police critics. Last February, before his appointment to the commission, Mack appeared on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” to discuss the Brown shooting. He stated flatly that Garcia should not have shot Brown. “The officers were out of the car and in no danger whatsoever,” he said, “and Officer Garcia unloaded 10 rounds, three, four into the car, into young Devin Brown....”

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Also that month, Mack told the Los Angeles Sentinel that the Brown shooting was “sickening” and that it “represent[ed] another tragedy inflicted on our community by an LAPD officer.”

And in an opinion piece for The Times shortly before his appointment, Mack wrote that “the LAPD has a long-standing institutional culture in which some police officers feel that they have the tacit approval of their leadership ... to brutalize and even kill African American boys and men.”

Yet we are asked to believe that Mack put aside his preconceived notions about the LAPD and the Brown shooting and gave the question before the commission a reasoned, objective examination?

“I feel, as my fellow commissioners do,” Mack told the Parker Center audience last week, “that each of us made our decisions based on our best understanding and careful objective analysis of the facts, without prejudging the actions or motives of the officer.”

Sure.

Incredibly, though Mack was among those clamoring for a “transparent” investigation into the Brown shooting, he offered no rationale for his commission’s ruling, citing the confidentiality of its deliberations. How can this commission claim to lead the LAPD when it offers no justification for a decision so completely at odds with Bratton’s? If the chief’s and the commission’s opinions on the shooting are irreconcilable, officers wonder which of them should guide their actions in the future. Without an explanation from the commission, officers are left to speculate on the wisdom of its decisions and the purity of its motives.

The ruling also highlights what some may see as a defect in the Police Department’s disciplinary system. In finding the Brown shooting out of policy, the commission sends the matter back to Bratton for action against Garcia. Bratton has ordered a “trial board” made up of two LAPD staff officers and a civilian. The board will hear evidence and, if it finds Garcia guilty of misconduct, recommend a penalty that could range from a reprimand to termination. But the final authority on all departmental discipline rests with Bratton, who can either impose the recommended penalty or reduce it.

Bratton’s dilemma is this: If he bends to political pressure and disciplines Garcia, he will appear weak in the eyes of his officers, on whom his reputation as a crime-fighter depends. But if he shrugs off the commission’s ruling and spares Garcia, he risks jeopardizing his standing with his civilian bosses and Villaraigosa the year before they consider him for a second five-year term.

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The commission’s ruling suggests that it would rather have seen Garcia killed that night than Brown. The city must decide what kind of police officer it wants: the kind who will chase criminals through the streets in the dead of night, or the kind who will avoid perils to life and livelihood and simply watch them get away.


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