Editorial: Los Angeles is facing a Willie Horton moment

Michael Christopher Mejia
Michael Christopher Mejia appears in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Bellflower, Calif. on March 6. Mejia is charged with killing Whittier, Calif., Police Officer Keith Boyer.
(Keith Durflinger / Associated Press)

With the Los Angeles County Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Safety meeting Monday for the first time, it’s appropriate to remember why governments create such bodies.

Sometimes it’s because elected officials recognize their own inability to get to the bottom of a difficult issue that requires expertise, in-depth investigation and a laser-like focus on facts regardless of the political fallout. Such was the case with the county’s well-regarded Citizens Commission on Jail Violence. After its appointment in 2011, that commission rejected the Board of Supervisors’ “offers” of office space, staff and legal counsel in order to do its work with complete independence, and as a result came back with a sharply-worded report that criticized the mismanagement of the Sheriff’s Department and virtually demanded the resignation of Sheriff Lee Baca. The report prefigured criminal convictions of Baca and some of his top aides and several jail deputies, and set forth the guidelines for rebuilding the department.

Other times, sad to say, politicians create commissions because the evidence is in on a controversial topic like global warming or voter fraud, yet the established facts fail to fit the worldview of one or more elected officials who are seeking an alternative platform to prove things they just know must be true despite conclusive findings to the contrary. So we get circuses like the bumbling Kobach commission — a witch-hunt for the voter fraud that President Trump is certain exists because, after all, he did not win the official popular tally last year. Or we get jokes like the president’s climate change “red team” and the ridiculous accompanying plan to “debate” the existence of human-instigated global warming — something that is a matter of established scientific consensus.

Michael Christopher Mejia could become the chief weapon to undermine late but welcome improvements to California’s criminal justice system.

So into which category should we place the county’s new blue ribbon commission? We’re anxious to find out. And we’re frankly a bit worried.

That’s in large part because the Board of Supervisors explicitly created the commission in response to the Feb. 20 shooting death of Whittier Police Officer Keith Boyer and the unfounded assertion that the killing was a direct result of recent landmark criminal justice reforms. A host of police, prosecutors and politicians have made Boyer’s alleged killer, Michael Christopher Mejia, the chief weapon in their quest for repeal, or at least rollback, of those reforms. Just as furloughed convict Willie Horton became a symbol to stoke fear of crime in the 1988 presidential election (and, by the way, helped pave the way for election victories for George H.W. Bush and a long line of tough-on-crime candidates), Mejia could become — if the blue-ribbon commission permits — the chief weapon to undermine late but welcome improvements to California’s criminal justice system.

That would be ironic, given that the supposed evidence to connect AB 109 (which reassigned some felony inmates and parolees from the state to counties), Proposition 47 (which turned drug possession and several property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors) or Proposition 57 (which will tie prison release to proof of rehabilitation) to Boyer’s killing has been asserted but never been made public. The same Board of Supervisors that established the commission refused to release information about the case.


That “take our word for it” level of discourse is about par for the course when it comes to critiques of the three reform measures. Police, prosecutors and some politicians — and occasionally journalists — continue to level a volley of utterly false assertions, including that shoplifters are streaming to California in order to steal items worth less than $950 per theft and avoid arrest. “They’re laughing at us,” according to these critics of reform.

The commission could do the public a real service if it takes up, examines and once and for all refutes the various falsehoods about criminal justice reform — and if it pinpoints those areas in which there truly are problems that can be addressed with particular changes to the law, or to day-to-day operations of law enforcement or courts.

It would do a real service as well if it spotlights Los Angeles County’s continuing refusal to fully fund the rehabilitative and reentry services that are needed to make each of the reform programs work properly, and if it does its work — all of it — openly and transparently, with full reports to the public rather than “take our word for it” winks and nods.

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