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Opinion

Editorial: LAPD’s wall of secrecy has to go

Charlie Beck, Jim McDonnell

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, left, and Los Angeles Sheriff Jim McDonnell on Dec. 15, 2015.

(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

According to the news release it issued Tuesday, the Los Angeles Police Commission examined the details of two deadly officer-involved shootings last year exceedingly carefully before determining that one was within department policy and the other was not. To reach their conclusions, the five civilian commissioners reviewed the statements of witnesses and officers, watched video from body cameras, examined DNA results and read narratives of the incidents. The analysis, the commission said, was “deliberate, thoughtful and compassionate” and reaching a decision was “extremely difficult.”

In the end, the commission concurred with Police Chief Charlie Beck that the officers acted “within policy” in the fatal shooting of Charlie “Africa” Keunang, an unarmed mentally ill man, on Skid Row on March 1 (except for one rookie officer who they faulted for losing control of his firearm). The commission also agreed that the officer who shot Sergio Navas, who was also unarmed, after he led police on a car chase four days later, did not fall within department policy.

Until the wall of secrecy surrounding use of deadly force investigations comes down, there will continue to be lingering suspicions that decisions are made for political reasons.

Maybe these were the correct decisions. We hope so. Certainly the commission, like the Police Chief, is making an effort to convey that it takes its responsibilities in such cases very, very seriously. But how can Angelenos know for sure whether the commission’s decisions were right or wrong? The details of the incidents were discussed and the decisions made in closed session. The wealth of information available to commissioners is unavailable to the public. Nor will the public be informed whether the officers are being fired or retained. In many cases, the public isn’t even entitled to learn the names of the officers involved in such shootings.

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This is not due to some Los Angeles Police Department anti-transparency policy, but because of an overly restrictive state law familiarly known as the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights that was designed to protect the privacy of officers. If the nation has learned any lesson in the wake of a series of police shootings of unarmed African-American since 2014, it is that keeping secrets deepens mistrust.

In the absence of details about past shootings, the department must continue to communicate what it can, including the steps it is taking to reduce the likelihood of future deadly encounters. In the last year, for example, the 60 LAPD officers who work in homeless communities have received 40 hours worth of training in dealing with mental illness. That training is now been expanded to field training officers as well.

The department has also added about 40 people to its mental health response teams. And all officers have been given training in de-escalating conflicts and in what the department calls “preservation of life” tactics. Live role-playing training scenarios have also been updated to reinforce non-lethal force. These steps are essential to address the issue of officer-involved shootings. Last year, there were 45 police shootings, nearly twice as many as the year before. Nineteen were fatal — the most since 2011.

The commission says it studied these two cases closely and that the commissioners used their best judgment. But until the wall of secrecy surrounding use of deadly force investigations comes down, there will be lingering concerns that decisions are made to protect police officers or for political reasons. That should change.

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