Recent LAPD controversies have officials in damage-control mode
It’s not the kind of housekeeping Charlie Beck wants to do.
Standing before reporters Tuesday, the Los Angeles Police Department chief looked into television cameras and spoke to one of his own officers.
“If Henry Solis is watching this, you have dishonored this Police Department, your country and your service to the country, and your family,” Beck said in a grave voice. “And you should turn yourself in and face the consequences for your actions.”
Solis, a rookie, has been on the lam since Friday, when police say he fatally shot a man after a bar fight in Pomona. In his comments, Beck said he wasn’t waiting for Solis to turn up to dismiss him from the department.
Beck moved on to another officer who grabbed headlines this week when Border Patrol agents caught him allegedly trying to smuggle a Mexican national into the country in the trunk of a car.
The chief said that officer could face termination as well.
These are, to be sure, rough days for the LAPD.
The wayward officers inflicted bruises on a department that has been battered in recent months by a string of controversial incidents. Fairly or not, a spate of questionable shootings and bad-apple cops have left Beck and other top officials working overtime to control damage.
The stakes are high. The LAPD has been trying deliberately for the last 15 years to free itself from a reputation earned over several decades for abuse and corruption. To a large extent, it has succeeded, evolving into a far more accountable and professional agency. But, as the recent rocky times have underscored, some problems persist, and old perceptions — especially those deeply ingrained in the city’s collective psyche — die hard.
“We’re still just one crisis away from people saying, ‘See? There’s the old LAPD again,’” said Craig Lally, a 35-year veteran of the department who serves as president of the union representing rank-and-file officers. “Everything we do goes under the microscope. And when you’ve got 10,000 officers responding to a million calls, there’s always going to be someone who does something really bizarre or even criminal.”
Lally and others are quick to point out that the incidents that have given the department headaches are, by all accounts, unrelated and don’t point to larger systemic problems.
They added that in some of the cases, at least, it’s not clear yet whether the officers involved did anything wrong.
For example, in an episode that has drawn the most intense public scrutiny — the fatal shooting of a homeless man on skid row — recordings appear to show the man grabbing for an officer’s gun, which, under department rules, would probably justify the officers’ decision to fire.
But in the minutes and hours after a dramatic shooting such as that, questions of right and wrong aren’t always the point.
As millions of people viewed a bystander’s video of the shooting on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites lit up with a torrent of furious condemnation of the department.
In recent years, the LAPD has made strides in rebuilding ties with minority and poor communities where distrust of police is greatest. Beck, for example, has curbed vehicle impounds, which tended to create hardships for immigrants who often lack driver’s licenses.
The chief has also assigned more officers to troubled housing projects with the goal of building relationships with residents rather than making arrests.
The department also conducts numerous community forums that allow religious and minority groups direct access to high-ranking police officials.
Several police experts say the department’s community outreach efforts have helped blunt the effects of controversial incidents.
Merrick Bobb, a consultant on police reform issues, pointed to last summer’s fatal police shooting of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill black man, in South L.A.
Unlike other cities which have seen massive, sometimes violent demonstrations over police shootings in recent months, Bobb said Los Angeles was “dealing with it in a far more healthy way.”
“The LAPD has been able to weather the difficult incidents that have occurred over the last little while without generating the kind of distrust and outpouring that has occurred in other cities facing similar situations,” he said.
Still, Bobb said it was important for the department to “respond and react appropriately” when controversial incidents occur. Part of that response includes being as “forthcoming and transparent as the law and circumstances will allow,” he said.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said he sees the LAPD as shouldering “an additional responsibility given the history” to recognize that the gains the department has made in recent years can ebb in the face of too many controversies.
“But they also have an additional benefit of really being a turnaround story and a model in so many ways nationally. I never let the model shield us from the mistakes, but I never let the mistakes cloud us from seeing the model,” he said.
Cmdr. Andrew Smith, a department spokesman, said it was important to note the size and scope of the LAPD. With jurisdiction over 4 million people, he said, “we are used to handling a lot of high-profile, high-risk incidents at one time.”
On Sunday, two narcotics officers were shot at and wounded while driving on duty in South Los Angeles.
“Crazy things are going to happen. High-profile things are going to happen. International things are going to happen,” he said. “These kind of things happen in a big city. It just happened this time without a lot of time in between.”
He acknowledged that a string of incidents could affect the community’s perception of the department. But he said police officers were also angered by the
bad actions of their colleagues.
“It tarnishes everybody’s badge when somebody gets accused of committing a homicide. It tarnishes everybody’s badge when somebody gets accused of human trafficking,” he said.
“As outraged as the public is over some of these accusations, I guarantee you the men and women of the Police Department are twice as upset.”
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