New Police Commission president to confront crucial challenges and promises to continue LAPD reform

Steve Soboroff, the newly elected president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, speaks during one of the civilian panel's meetings this year.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

When Steve Soboroff first joined the Los Angeles Police Commission in 2013, the atmosphere surrounding policing was dramatically different.

Controversial police shootings across the country had not yet ignited the national conversation about officers’ use of deadly force. Activists chanting “black lives, they matter here,” had not routinely descended upon the commission’s meetings. Headline-grabbing killings of officers in other cities had not rattled those working here.

The years since have been marked by significant changes in policing — and an increasingly hands-on approach by the Police Commission as it pushed the Los Angeles Police Department toward reform.


That is the complicated dynamic Soboroff inherited this week when he was unanimously elected president of the commission, the second time the real estate developer, philanthropist and one-time mayoral candidate has held the job. Soboroff, 69, had been serving as vice president of the five-member oversight body.

I want to find a way, in each of these issues, to cross the finish line.

— Steve Soboroff, newly elected president of the Police Commission

He replaces Matt Johnson, an entertainment attorney whose two-year term as president just ended. Johnson will be the panel’s vice president.

Soboroff said he planned to work closely with Johnson and other commissioners to complete changes already underway: improving de-escalation and anti-bias training for officers, strengthening protections for immigrants, improving interactions with homeless people, and doubling-down on community policing.

“I want to find a way, in each of these issues, to cross the finish line,” Soboroff said in an interview this week. “Fasten your seat belts. We’re not done.”

Leaders of the union representing thousands of LAPD officers welcomed Soboroff to the role, saying in a statement that his election validated “the need for an experienced leader with an even keel who can move the department forward.”

In his own statement, Mayor Eric Garcetti said Soboroff’s “commitment to community and relationship-based law enforcement gives me great confidence that the commission has the right team in place” to continue improving the LAPD.

Not everyone was happy with Soboroff’s reelection, however. Some activists who regularly attend — and often disrupt — the panel’s weekly meetings booed Tuesday when Soboroff was nominated president, underscoring the tension between him and some community members.


“I don’t know if I should take offense to a rich white man, living in Pacific Palisades, representing the most impacted people of Los Angeles,” activist Hamid Khan said shortly after Soboroff’s selection.

The Police Commission oversees the operations of the 10,000-officer force, sets LAPD policies and has an inspector general who investigates and audits the department on its behalf. In one of their most important roles, commissioners decide whether police shootings and other serious uses of force were appropriate.

Under Johnson’s leadership, the panel focused heavily on reducing shootings by officers, revamping the LAPD’s use of force policy and specifically training officers to defuse confrontations before reaching for their guns. Officers who fire their weapons are now judged on whether they did all they could to de-escalate encounters before doing so.

That “changes the culture of the institution,” Johnson said. “That’s certainly an area that I’m proud of.”

Although those efforts were praised by many city and community leaders, a group of activists affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement has been critical of the commission, saying it hasn’t done enough to help residents, particularly those who are black or Latino.

The group has lobbed personal attacks against some commissioners, including Soboroff, who they’ve also accused of siding with the police. There have been heated back-and-forths at the panel’s meetings between Soboroff and the group.


One example came last fall, when Soboroff directed officers to remove two people in the audience he had warned against disrupting the meeting. Many in the crowd jeered. Soboroff threatened to stop the meeting.

“Hold up,” another commissioner, Cynthia McClain-Hill said. “Stop, stop —”

“I’ve got the gavel and I will handle the meeting,” Soboroff shot back. “OK, Cynthia?”

Several people in the audience jumped to their feet, shouting.

Soboroff later apologized to McClain-Hill and others in the room.

“I really want to push the reset button on the tense relationships that we have — or that I have,” he said this week.

Soboroff said he welcomed the skills of McClain-Hill, who is an attorney and public policy expert, and that he is trying to be more attuned to underlying issues driving activists.

“I probably agree, conceptually, with 90% of what they’re trying to do,” he said. “So now, when they’re talking, that’s what I’m thinking about.”

Soboroff said there are other lessons he’s learned since first joining the board: How difficult a police officer’s job is. How quickly policing is changing. How the LAPD must work to better help the underserved.

He’s also learned lessons from Johnson, he said, praising his ability to reach out to organizations inside and outside of law enforcement to effect change.


“The skills and understanding that Matt brought to the table were the right skills — the right person at the right time,” Soboroff said. “I need to continue stressing some of those skills.”

There are a number of pressing issues facing the Police Commission, including drafting new rules that will likely result in the release of body camera and other video after critical incidents involving the police. The commission must find a new inspector general. The panel also wants to reassure immigrants who fear contacting the police because of the federal government’s threats of deportation.

After his election Tuesday, Soboroff addressed a room filled with police officers, activists and his fellow commissioners.

“Every Angeleno deserves an ever-evolving LAPD that protects and serves every Angeleno,” he said. “And every Angeleno needs to help in some way to make that happen. ... Let’s start moving forward.”