LAPD got hundreds of complaints about officers not wearing COVID masks, but punished few
As the COVID-19 pandemic raged through Los Angeles in 2020 and 2021, infecting thousands of Los Angeles police officers, LAPD officials mandated that officers wear protective masks while at work and when interacting with the public.
They also promised to hold those who didn’t accountable.
However, new data show that few officers were ever formally punished for disobeying the directive, despite hundreds of complaints both from the public and internally within the department.
In 2020 and 2021, just two mask complaints — one per year — out of 268 that were filed resulted in formal punishment for the involved officers, according to annual reports from the LAPD’s Professional Standards Bureau, which includes internal affairs.
The reports did not name the disciplined officers, describe the underlying circumstances of the complaints or say how many officers were involved in the two complaints that were upheld, or “sustained.”
Far more often, officers who broke mask rules were processed through a less severe “non-disciplinary” process. They avoided punishment — or even formal “admonishment” or “reprimand” — in the department’s complex discipline system, which is controlled at least in part by a collective bargaining agreement with the LAPD’s labor union.
In dozens of cases, officials instead ruled that the involved officers’ “actions could have been different.” In many of those instances, they were given a “Notice to Correct Deficiency” or directed to receive “counseling” on the matter. That path allowed officers to avoid having a “sustained” complaint on their records.
Many of the 268 complaints that were investigated involved claims that more than one officer had violated the mask rules.
That total does not necessarily include cases in which someone alleged that an officer had failed to wear a mask as part of a broader complaint involving more serious allegations as well.
It also may not include instances in which internal investigators reviewing other claims became aware of repeated mask violations by individual officers and flagged those failures themselves, department officials said.
Officials could not say how many such mask violations were not included in the new data.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore said he stood by his decisions around mask protocols over the last two years. He said every single mask complaint received was or is being investigated, and that “corrective action” was taken in response to the majority of complaints through the “progressive discipline” system and through “training and reinforcing expectations.”
“Corrective action involving officers without prior complaints for the same offense have been addressed with counseling and documentation in their personnel file,” Moore said.
Moore said the two sustained cases involved “repeat failures” by officers to comply with masking rules, and that official reprimands and suspensions were handed down.
“Our people are and have been working in difficult and trying circumstances. The wearing of a face covering or masks over many hours has been an added complication to their daily work,” Moore said. “Much like the rest of society, over time our workforce has made the necessary adjustments in their work habits.”
William Gude, who tweets from the account @FilmThePoliceLA, is one of the department’s chief critics. He was responsible for many of the mask complaints over the last two years.
Throughout much of the pandemic, he routinely posted videos of officers not wearing masks — on the street and within police stations — and lambasted Moore and other officials for not taking more action to address the disobedience among officers.
Gude said the new figures show the “progressive discipline” system is a sham.
He said he has personally filed multiple complaints against many individual officers who he personally witnessed — and recorded — repeatedly not wearing masks, only for the department to forgo punishment. His complaints targeted many officers who worked at the front desks of community police stations.
“It’s really frustrating,” Gude said.
Gude accused Moore and the department of not only ignoring the disobedience, but condoning it through a discipline process in which “sustained” findings of wrongdoing were systematically avoided — even when officers were clearly guilty of the alleged offenses.
He said the department instead chose the lesser, toothless findings that an officer’s “actions could have been different.”
“It’s not just that it’s flawed, I think it has bad intent on their part,” Gude said of the way the process is set up. “It’s not done in the public interest.”
Moore said that Gude’s mask complaints make up a bulk of the complaints received. He said he has ordered an audit of the outcomes in all of Gude’s complaints so he can personally assess whether supervisors were taking them seriously and adjudicating them appropriately.
That audit began several weeks ago, Moore said. He did not have a timeline for when it would be finished.
Moore defended the department’s “non-disciplinary” response in many of the cases, saying that, in most instances, the violation was minor and the primary goal was to change the officers’ behavior rather than to punish them.
According to the 2020 annual report, the LAPD received and processed 115 complaints of about 223 officers not wearing protective masks. It sustained just one of them.
The department determined that officers’ “actions could have been different” in 55 cases.
Investigators found “insufficient evidence” in an additional 17 cases, and officers entered something called “alternative complaint resolution” in nine cases. An additional 18 complaints remained unresolved at the time the report was published. Officers were absolved of wrongdoing in others.
In 2021, the LAPD received and processed 153 complaints about an undisclosed number of officers not wearing masks, according to the report for that year, and again sustained just one.
Officials determined that officers’ “actions could have been different” in an additional 70 cases, and found “insufficient evidence” in 19. An additional 10 officers entered into an “alternative complaint resolution,” while investigators found “no misconduct” in 22 cases.
In both years, smaller numbers of complaints were dismissed as procedural issues, as involving individuals other than department personnel, or as being “unfounded” for some other reason.
Deputy Chief Michael Rimkunas, who commands the Professional Standards Bureau, said other cases are still being worked through. “As you can imagine,” he said, “this can be a timely process.”
The department has since lifted some mask requirements for officers, matching the lifting of most mask rules for members of the public in L.A. Officers are still required to wear masks in some indoor and detention settings.
The mask rule for officers had been considered important when implemented for multiple reasons.
The officers were not only vulnerable to infection themselves as they continued working in public while many others remained home, officials reasoned. They also came into regular contact with other vulnerable people who also needed protection — particularly given that thousands of officers are not vaccinated against COVID-19.
LAPD officers are required to be vaccinated against the virus unless they received a medical or religious exemption. Thousands applied for such exemptions; many of those applications are pending, and the officers remain unvaccinated.
Moore said more than 80% of LAPD employees have been vaccinated, and those who aren’t and are awaiting exemptions are tested weekly.
As of last week, more than 5,300 members of the LAPD’s 12,000-employee workforce had tested positive for the coronavirus. At the pandemic’s peak, so many were falling ill at one time that officials feared patrol coverage would be affected as a result.
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