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California

LAPD shootings hit 30-year low in 2019; less-lethal force has increased

L.A. police officers
Officials attributed the decline in L.A. police shootings to new policies that emphasize the preservation of life and require officers to use de-escalation tactics whenever possible.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Shootings by Los Angeles police officers reached a 30-year low in 2019, with fatal shootings declining for the fourth year in a row, according to a new report on police use of force.

Los Angeles Police Department officers opened fire on 26 suspects last year, compared with 115 in 1990.

Of those last year, 21 people were struck and 12 killed, continuing a downward trend in deaths since 21 were fatally shot in 2015.

The number of incidents in which suspects were injured dropped by 4% from the year before, the report found, and contact between members of the public and police dogs was at the lowest point in five years.

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At the same time, the number of incidents in which officers used less-lethal force, such as strikes and “takedowns,” reached a five-year high, with 2,320 such encounters occurring last year. Incidents in which batons were used increased by 38%.

Overall, use of force was up 8.5% compared to 2018, even as officer shootings were down 21.1%.

Officials attributed the decline in shootings to new policies that emphasize the preservation of life and require officers to use de-escalation tactics whenever possible. Crime also has declined in the city, with arrests down 11.3% and overall officer contacts with members of the public down 4%.

Officials said the increase in less-lethal force was in part a result of those same de-escalation tactics, and partly a result of increased monitoring of officers’ actions.

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In comments to the Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday, Asst. Chief Beatrice Girmala touted the decline in shootings while giving a brief overview of the report’s findings. She said a more thorough analysis of the findings would be provided to the commission next week.

Commissioners said they would hold most of their questions until then, after having time to review the report, which is hundreds of pages long.

Girmala told the commission that one concerning finding was an increase in force used against people experiencing homelessness. More than a third of those who had non-lethal police force used against them in 2019 were homeless, while five of the 21 people police shot last year were homeless.

Girmala said ongoing training in mental health intervention and de-escalation will be critical if the department is to see continued declines in the use of force. Moving forward, a working group that includes community members will help shape that training, she said.

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In the report itself, LAPD Chief Michel Moore said officers are getting better at finding alternatives to pulling their firearms out in challenging and dangerous settings.

“The LAPD continues to make significant improvements in the effectiveness of less-lethal options for officers, mental health intervention training, and the development of non-lethal tools that increase the distance and cover available during dynamic situations,” Moore wrote.

Moore told the commission Tuesday that the department will continue seeking ways to reduce the use of force. “We’re going to keep going after this,” he said.

After two commissioners and several members of the public raised concerns that the majority of individuals shot or shot at by police were people of color, Moore agreed the department should continue to look for systemic inequities and improve policing methods.

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Of 26 suspects involved in the incidents in which officers opened fire last year, 15, or 58%, were Latino. Another eight, or 31%, were black, and two, or 8%, were white. Of all suspects involved in officer shootings, 17 had a firearm and five had an edged weapon, the report found.

In 2018, LAPD officers fired their weapons 33 times, hitting a total of 24 people and killing 14, according to a similar analysis last year. The 33 shootings marked a 25% decrease from the 44 shootings in 2017, according to the previous report, and the second-fewest number of police shootings since 1989.

Of the 44 shootings in 2017, 31 people were hit and 17 of them were killed. That represented a decrease from 19 killed in 2016 and 21 in 2015, police have said. But the total of 44 shootings in 2017 was an increase from the 40 overall shootings in 2016, and the use of less-lethal force by officers was up 10% from 2016 to 2017.

The declines in deadly encounters follows policy changes by the Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the Police Department, requiring officers to de-escalate situations whenever possible.

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Whether the declines will continue this year is unclear.

During last week’s commission meeting, Moore said that LAPD shootings were up overall, with nine this year compared to seven during the same period last year. However, that was still down from the four-year average of 12 for that time frame.

Three of the shootings this year were fatal, compared to four at the same point last year.

The careful tracking of police shootings and other uses of force in Los Angeles in recent years reflects a broader scrutiny of police actions nationwide as the deaths of young men of color, and particularly young black men, during police encounters have galvanized protesters in new ways.

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In a city that has seen the most police shootings in the U.S. in years past, there is a heightened sensitivity to criticisms of aggressive policing tactics, and that has not abated as the number of people killed each year by police has declined.

Even when encounters do not end in death, they draw intense criticism, such as with an officer’s beating of a homeless man in Boyle Heights in late April that was captured on camera by a bystander and is now under investigation. In addition to releasing the use-of-force report Tuesday, police released body camera footage from that encounter.

Other reports on use of force also have been made public.

In July, the state attorney general issued a report showing that 146 civilians died during law enforcement confrontations in California in 2018, a decline from 172 civilians who died in 2017 and 157 in 2016. Three officers died in confrontations in 2018.

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In January, the LAPD released a separate report finding that police in recent months had been using more force against people experiencing homelessness. In the third quarter of 2019, for example, police used force against homeless people 217 times, a 26% increase over the same period in 2018, the report found.

Cmdr. Donald Graham, LAPD’s homeless coordinator, pointed to increases in the city’s homeless population and in crimes committed by and against homeless people.

Police noted that the 26 incidents in which officers fired their weapons at suspects in 2019 accounted for 0.001% of all police interactions with the public last year.

The 26 shootings by the LAPD in 2019 matched the number of shootings by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies last year. By comparison, there were 17 shootings by Chicago police, 25 shootings by New York City police and 20 shootings by Houston police last year, the LAPD report found.

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There were 758 attacks on LAPD officers in 2019, representing a small decline from 2018, the report found.


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