The important difference between the decision by Los Angeles County prosecutors not to criminally charge Long Beach Police Officer Jeffrey Meyer for his deadly shooting of a man in 2015 and their many previous decisions not to charge police in shootings is that they pointedly took Meyer to task for substantial "tactical deficiencies" that needlessly turned an investigation deadly.
As reported by The Times on Saturday, Meyer was responding to a trespassing call when he illuminated a dark apartment with a light mounted on his handgun, saw a crouching man, feared he was armed, and fired. His bullet killed 19-year-old Hector Morejon, who was unarmed. The critique of Meyer's actions came in a memo dated Sept. 22.
Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey has been sharply criticized for failing to bring charges against officers at a time when high-profile police shootings have stoked public anger in Los Angeles and around the nation. Lacey has responded that her role is limited to demonstrating in court beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer broke the law. She has argued, correctly, that it is the job of police agencies themselves and not the criminal justice system to determine whether an officer used improper tactics, acted out of policy, needs to be retrained or deserves to fired.
So Lacey's decision to go beyond her official duties and criticize Meyer's conduct even though she opted not to file charges is noteworthy.
It also brings to mind the call early this year by Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck that criminal charges were warranted in another 2015 shooting — the killing by LAPD Officer Clifford Proctor of Brendon Glenn, an unarmed homeless man. In both the Los Angeles shooting and the Long Beach case a public official found police wrongdoing and strongly suggested that action was called for — by another agency.
The statements hint that some of the frustration felt by members of the public at the many-layered and somewhat convoluted response to excessive police uses of force — the feeling that they are being given the runaround, that no official is ultimately accountable for bad police shootings and that the system is constructed to shield officers and leave the public wondering what happened and why — is beginning to be felt in police stations and district attorney's offices. It's as if law enforcement and justice leaders agree that something is amiss and someone must do something about it. But who? And, almost as important, when?
Lacey's office has had Glenn's case under review for the better part of a year but has yet to decide whether to bring charges against the officer.
Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Police Commission asked the LAPD to report back on a series of steps to make the responses to police shootings quicker and more transparent, similar to the public disclosure and presentation that generally occurs a week after police uses of force involving the Las Vegas Police Department.
LAPD officials have cautioned that they keep much of their investigation into police shootings out of the public eye to avoid undermining any concurrent criminal probe by Lacey's office. But there is a question about how much protection to give a district attorney process that has never, so far, resulted in any charges arising from any on-duty police shooting.
In the Long Beach case, the city has already paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Morejon's family, but it's not clear whether the official stance of the police department is that Meyer acted properly or improperly, that training and tactics are fine or flawed, or whether officers who find themselves in a similar position should act as Meyer did or behave differently. That's unclear because the department does not reveal the outcomes of its shooting review board.
At present, neither Long Beach nor Los Angeles, nor any California police agency, can fully embrace the Las Vegas model of transparency and responsiveness because of state laws adopted in the 1970s to protect officer privacy. Until a 2014 state Supreme Court ruling — arising from a Long Beach police shooting — law enforcement agencies in California seldom even released the names of the officers who pulled the trigger.
This year a bill to further restore some balance to the tug-of-war between officers' right to privacy and a public demanding accountability quietly died in Sacramento. That's a shame. A version of the bill that was floated a decade earlier received the loud support of L.A.'s then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton. As a new Legislature is elected and sets its agenda for 2017, it would be wise for lawmakers to dust off that bill — and for Lacey, Beck, Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and their counterparts in other cities and counties around California to support it.