Last year, as the number of police shootings soared, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck repeatedly gave his bosses and the public an explanation: Officers were discharging their weapons more because they were coming under attack more. He bolstered his assertion with LAPD statistics that showed an increase in the number of assaults on officers.
But an independent LAPD watchdog now contends there was no link between the dramatic rise in officer-involved shootings and assaults on officers.
Alex Bustamante, the inspector general for the Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD, scrutinized the 2011 assault and shooting figures in a report he will present to the commission Tuesday. In the report, he challenged the way the LAPD tallies assaults on officers, suggesting it is misleading.
Los Angeles police fired their weapons in 63 incidents last year, a total which marked a roughly 50% increase over the shootings in any of the previous four years, according to the report. Beck has explained the increase by pointing to what the LAPD said was a 22% increase in assaults on officers from 2010 to 2011. Police officials counted 193 such incidents in 2011, which were recorded as assaults with a deadly weapon or attempted murders, according to the report.
"Officer involved shootings are also up — largely in response to these kind of attacks," Beck told the Police Commission in November.
But the inspector general found several reasons why he said this cause-and-effect relationship wasn't accurate. For one, from 2007 to last year, the number of assaults on officers fluctuated dramatically from one year to the next. The number of officer-involved shootings, however, remained relatively flat until last year, when they jumped. If there had been a connection between the two, the year-to-year totals should have climbed and dropped in sync, according to the report.
The way the department tracks shootings and assaults on officers also muddied matters, Bustamante found. Attacks on officers are tallied based on the number of officers present when assaults occur. By contrast, the department counts an officer-involved shooting as a single event regardless of how many officers open fire. In an incident in April 2011, for example, in which a suspect shot at police from inside a house, the LAPD counted 16 assaults on officers and one officer-involved shooting, despite the fact that 15 officers fired their weapons.
When Bustamante recalculated last year's assault total to count the number of incidents instead of officers, he counted 106 attacks — a 45% drop from the department's total. And, instead of a double-digit increase that Beck had contended, Bustamante said the number of assaults was actually about even from 2010 to 2011.
Finally, the report examined the department's Southeast and 77th Street divisions, both of which experienced large increases in officer-involved shootings in 2011. It showed that while attacks on officers rose in 77th Street, they fell in Southeast.
"As such, there does not appear to be a clear correlation" between attacks and shootings, the report concluded. Bustamante's report did not offer any possible explanations for the increase in officer shootings.
It was not clear from the report what kind of danger the officers faced in each attack. Other than briefly mentioning the April incident, in which one officer was shot in the jaw and the others traded fire with the suspect, Bustamante did not discuss the details of any attack.
From information released by the LAPD when attacks occur, it is known that in a few of the cases officers were stabbed or shot. In one such incident in October, two officers came under fire and were hit by small pellets resembling bird shot when they came upon a shooting. Under California law, however, someone can be arrested for assault with a deadly weapon whether or not they injure another person. For example, someone who brandishes a knife while being confronted by police, but does not stab anyone, is likely to be accused of assaults on each officer.
Through a spokesperson Beck issued to The Times a written response to the inspector general's report. He stood by the idea that "there is a relationship between some types of attacks on police officers and officer involved shootings." And he said people accused of assaulting LAPD officers last year were armed with guns and knives — as opposed to less threatening weapons — at a higher rate than in previous years, which Beck said helped explain why more shootings occurred. So far this year, officer-involved shootings have fallen about 25% compared with 2011 but remain above the levels of previous years during the same period.
Questions about the accuracy of the assault numbers has broader implications. Beck has pointed to the supposed increase in attacks on officers as evidence that falling crime rates in the city have freed up officers to more quickly confront violent suspects. The attacks, he said at a September news conference, "are a result of effective policing. You know, the more contacts you have with violent criminals the more likely there is to be an assault on a police officer. The Los Angeles Police Department, due to its reduced work load, is getting to calls faster, confronting more violent suspects."