DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - This is a strange, strange time for the police force in the city of Los Angeles.
Although the number of aggravated assaults has spiked in the last year, the overall level of crime in the city is, by historic standards, extremely low. At the same time, the antagonism associated with the regime of former Chief Daryl Gates is long gone, and it has been more than two years since the transformation started by another former chief, William Bratton, prompted the Feds to lift a consent decree.
Further, the police force has become increasingly diverse, and the makeup of officers now more closely mirrors the city they patrol. Along the same lines, the department has worked hard to partner with communities on crime prevention and other measures. Even if some distrust of the force persists, things are far better now than they were in either Bush era.
You might not realize all that given the twists and turns of recent months. Ever since the death of Ezell Ford in South Los Angeles on Aug. 11, 2014, things have been tumultuous. Although the vast majority of police-citizen interactions continue to be peachy, a Lemony Snicket-like series of unfortunate events, including some that occurred thousands of miles from the city, are starting to color the public’s view of the department.
Granted this is more of a feel thing than something tangible, but if you have spent enough time in L.A., and paid attention to civic matters instead of Miley Cyrus happenings, you get a sense of when something lives beyond a news cycle and starts to cling to the fabric of the city. This one is enduring. It’s festering.
What’s worse is that the LAPD, and some city leaders, are missing opportunities to reduce tension. With media questions and the tentacle-like reach of social media, the powers-that-be run the risk of losing control of the narrative.
The result is that the LAPD has wound up on a weird sort of precipice. The type of unrest that erupted in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. after the killing of African-American men by police officers isn’t likely to happen here. But if those in charge continue to botch the hands they are dealt, then anything, even the unthinkable, is possible.
Ford, an African-American man who his family said had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, was unarmed when he was stopped by officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas 10 months ago. A fight ensued and the officers said they opened fire after Ford tried to grab Wampler’s gun.
Problem number one is that the killing occurred. Related problems are a) that many of the questions being asked at the time were still being asked this month, and b) that some of the public feels like part of the truth is being hidden.
This is all tinged by the aforementioned national discussion of race and policing. In addition to Baltimore and Ferguson, there have been highly questionable deaths in Cleveland, South Carolina and other places. Although those incidents have nothing to do with what unfolded in South L.A., they are united in the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and movement.
Then there is secrecy. Throughout the investigation into Ford’s death there was a move to keep certain discussions behind closed doors. While there is always a reason for such action, whether because of department policy, laws protecting police or ongoing lawsuits, it doesn’t square with what the public wants.
It all goes headfirst against the direction government is theoretically moving in. Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Controller Ron Galperin and L.A. County officials have led a 21st century charge for transparency, with a huge dump of public data onto various websites. This offers some information people care about and a lot that no one has any idea what to do with.
Yet as that kind of transparency increases, the information people really want — details on what exactly happened between Ford and the officers that day — is obscured.
Dueling findings only further muddy the waters. Police Chef Charlie Beck’s investigation cleared the officers of wrongdoing, saying they followed department policy. However, last Tuesday, the Police Commission, a citizen’s panel appointed by Garcetti, said Wampler never had reason to detain Ford in the first place, thus throwing the killing into question. The powerful union representing rank-and-file officers predictably blasted the commission, saying its members bowed to public pressure.
Now Beck must decide what, if any, punishment Wampler should receive. Given that the chief’s findings conflict with the Police Commission’s, one can understand why some observers might be skeptical about what happens next.
This is a no-win situation. Beck is going to infuriate some portion of the populace, whether it’s those who usually side with the police or those generally suspicious of the department. It’s an unenviable job, but it’s also a job of the chief.
Then again, part of being chief is being a communicator. This is both a managerial and a political post, and Beck has never been able to connect with the city and the media in the way that, for example, Bratton did. While he gets credit for continuing the reforms that Bratton initiated, running herd on a longtime crime decrease and keeping captains accountable for law-breaking in the areas they oversee, Beck has rarely been able to really sell the public on what he’s doing. Just remember the troubles that surfaced before his August 2014 re-appointment. He was even at the center of a fracas involving a horse his daughter sold to the department.
Garcetti also may be missing an opportunity. After protestors camped outside his house recently, he decided to schedule a meeting with Ford’s mother. The question is, why didn’t this happen before?
Garcetti wants to support his chief and said he expects Beck will make the right decision. Then again, Garcetti is the mayor, and people want to know what he really thinks. They want him to make the hard decisions, to have opinions on controversial and complicated matters, and to lead.
Another aspect colors Ford’s death: It’s that he’s not the only one who died in a controversial manner.
Several other police killings in Los Angeles have sparked outrage and protests. On March 1, Charly Lendeu Keunang was shot by police in Skid Row after fighting with officers. The police said that during an argument Keunang went for an officer’s gun. An observer’s chilling cell phone video was posted on Facebook and went viral.
An investigation began and, since then, the public has heard, well, nothing. Demands to release the video from the officers’ body cameras have been shot down.
What happened that day? Good question, and if the information is kept private and investigations proceed behind closed doors, the skepticism will grow.
No one pretends policing is easy, and no member of the general public will ever comprehend the life-and-death decisions that officers have to make in a few seconds, particularly when someone’s fingers are grasping for your firearm. But sometimes the problem and the strangeness doesn’t stem from the action in those few seconds. Sometimes they come from the quiet and apparent inaction in the months that follow.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015