For nearly two years, the Los Angeles Police Department’s civilian bosses have embarked on a high-profile campaign to curb the number of shootings by officers, pushing department brass for more training and less-lethal devices.
This week, the Police Commission will consider taking a major step to help the LAPD deliver on that goal.
Commissioners on Tuesday are expected to approve a new use-of-force policy that would require officers to try, whenever possible, to defuse tense encounters before using deadly force — a decades-old concept known as “de-escalation.”
The change would allow the commission to judge officers specifically on whether they could have found a way to resolve an encounter without resorting to firing their weapons. The move is the culmination of a series of actions aimed at reducing shootings.
A Times analysis found that commissioners ruled eight shootings by LAPD officers to be unjustified in 2016 — the highest number in at least a decade. In three of those cases, the board took the rare step of disagreeing with the LAPD’s chief, who had cleared the officers.
At the same time, The Times found, commissioners more often faulted the tactics officers used before a shooting, such as forgetting to carry a Taser or splitting from a partner during a foot chase. Last year, the panel decided there were tactical errors in 50% of the 46 shootings it reviewed, up from 32% the year before and 16% a decade ago.
These incidents are rare, given the million-plus contacts LAPD officers make with the public each year. The number of LAPD shootings has fluctuated in recent years, but generally falls between 30 and 50 annually.
In an era of increased scrutiny of policing, the commission’s actions have stirred criticism both inside and outside the LAPD. Some activists — particularly those with the Black Lives Matter movement — have organized protests, complaining that the panel hasn’t done enough to stop shootings and is too lenient on officers.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents 9,800 officers, has accused commissioners of unfairly judging officers and bending to political pressure. Officers worry they’ll be second-guessed for defending themselves in life-or-death situations, union officials say, and are less inclined to police proactively as a result.
“These officers, a lot of them are shutting down because their career might be in danger. They might lose their house, their family, their kids because they make one bad move,” said Craig Lally, the union’s president. “If you make a mistake, you’re going to … go through hell for it.”
The Police Commission typically deemed about two or three shootings unjustified each year, according to The Times’ analysis, which examined nearly 440 shootings reviewed by the board. In 2007, commissioners found that none of the 55 shootings evaluated violated the LAPD’s deadly force policy.
It is difficult to say whether last year’s uptick was the result of an increase in problematic encounters or intensified scrutiny by the five-person panel, whose members are appointed by the mayor. Police commissioners downplayed the increase, saying they carefully weigh each case on its own merits and aren’t influenced by outside pressure.
“We’ve been second-guessed by the Police Protective League and we’ve been second-guessed by activists that come to our meetings,” said Matt Johnson, the board’s president. “I won’t allow myself to have my decisions governed by whether I’m making someone happy or making someone upset.”
Johnson, a lawyer who was named to the panel in 2015 and has led the efforts to reduce shootings by officers, said he felt the board has a “moral obligation to preserve life when we can.” At the same time, he said, commissioners have spent time on ride-alongs and in roll-call meetings at stations, trying to learn as much as they can about what it’s like to be a police officer.
Steve Soboroff, a police commissioner since 2013, said he understands the impact an out-of-policy decision can have on an officer’s record and how that could influence morale.
“I can see how they feel — they don’t hold anything back,” Soboroff said of the union. “But I think the cops that are out there, day in and day out … do their jobs and they don’t look the other way.”
The Police Commission reviews every time an LAPD officer fires his or her gun, judging each in three categories: tactics, the decision to draw the firearm and the decision to pull the trigger. Commissioners consider recommendations from LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and their inspector general when making their decisions.
I won’t allow myself to have my decisions governed by whether I’m making someone happy or making someone upset.
The board, however, does not discipline officers for their actions. It is up to Beck to determine what discipline, if any, is appropriate — decisions that are kept confidential under state law.
Beck, who has said he supports the commission’s efforts to drive down shootings by officers, noted that he recommended the panel fault officers’ tactics more frequently last year than in years past. He said the LAPD deliberately began looking at those tactics with more scrutiny after making a few changes, including introducing training in de-escalation and mandating that officers carry Tasers.
Flawed tactics — such as officers separating in foot chases or running after an armed suspect instead of waiting for backup — can increase not only the level of danger for officers, Beck said, but also the likelihood of a shooting.
”It’s time to be stricter on some of these things,” he said.
As for disagreements, Beck noted that chiefs and commissioners have split on cases for decades.
“If we always thought the same thing, if they always agreed with me or I always agreed with them, then there would be no forward progress,” he said.
In 2015, the commission drew criticism from the union when it split with Beck and found that one of two officers who shot Ezell Ford in South L.A. — a controversial killing that became the local touchstone in the national debate over police shootings of black men — had violated the department’s deadly force policy.
Ford was walking near his home when the two officers tried to stop him. Authorities said the 25-year-old knocked one to the ground, launching a scuffle that ultimately ended in gunfire. Particularly galling to the union was that the investigation into Ford’s death acknowledged that he was shot while wrestling for the officer’s gun.
Ford’s death was one of four shootings reviewed in 2015 in which the Police Commission decided that an officer violated the LAPD’s rules for using deadly force. The next year, the number of such findings doubled to eight.
Some were high profile, such as the shooting of an unarmed man in Venice, which Beck said he believed should result in a criminal case against the officer. According to a report Beck gave police commissioners, surveillance video and statements from Officer Clifford Proctor’s partner disputed Proctor’s account that he shot Brendon Glenn because he thought the 29-year-old was going for his partner’s gun. Prosecutors have not yet said whether they will charge the officer.
Other shootings received less public attention.
A little more than a year ago, the panel reviewed the killing of an unarmed man shot by an officer at the end of a car chase in Burbank. Although the officer told investigators he feared Sergio Navas was going to ambush him, commissioners agreed with Beck that the 35-year-old could not reasonably have been viewed to pose an imminent threat. The officer, they said, violated the department’s rules on deadly force.
Among the three shootings that split the commission and Beck last year was the killing of James Joseph Byrd, a 45-year-old man shot after throwing a beer bottle through the back window of a police car stopped at a Van Nuys traffic light.
Beck determined the officers were justified in initially firing at Byrd, noting that they told investigators they saw Byrd holding something — one officer said he thought it was a gun. The chief said it was reasonable for the officers to believe Byrd posed an imminent threat, though he faulted them for a second burst of gunfire.
The Police Commission disagreed, concluding that the officers broke LAPD rules each time they pulled their triggers. The evidence — particularly the fact that no gun or other object was found at the scene — did not support the idea that Byrd posed an imminent threat, the board concluded.
In another shooting, Beck believed both officers who killed Norma Guzman, who was carrying an 8-inch knife, followed the LAPD’s deadly force policy. But the commission again looked at the entirety of the circumstances — as it did in Ford’s shooting — and said one officer put himself in a “vulnerable position” because he did not move away from Guzman and did not discuss using a less-lethal device with his partner beforehand. In a 4-1 vote, the panel faulted the officer’s use of deadly force.
Police union leaders were outraged. The officers, they argued, had the right to defend themselves against someone armed with a knife.
Anger over the commission’s ruling on a shooting — from either side — can linger for months. At the board’s weekly meetings, activists routinely chant the names of people killed by police and point to cases they say show commissioners are too soft on police.
After the board decided last summer that an officer was justified in using deadly force against Redel Jones — a black woman shot in a South L.A. alley when police say she moved toward an officer while holding a knife — scores of protesters marched to City Hall. Dozens camped outside the building for weeks.
Greg Akili, a community organizer and former legislative staffer from South Los Angeles who has been active in the Black Lives Matter movement, credited some commissioners with raising issues related to police reform but said he didn’t believe the board was willing to “rock the boat” to bring about substantial change.
Akili said he was concerned by what he described as a low standard for justifying shootings by police, such as an officer thinking someone was going for his or her gun.
“That bar has to be raised,” he said.
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