Process stinks, says Steve Lopez

Lack of trans­parency and time­li­ness marks a se­verely f lawed sys­tem, the colum­nist writes.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION -

The ques­tions dragged on and on.

Why did po­lice stop 25-year-old Ezell Ford in South Los An­ge­les on Aug. 11, 2014, and why did they end up shoot­ing the un­armed man to death?

Few an­swers were forth­com­ing. No full ex­pla­na­tion from po­lice or any­one else about the death of a young man di­ag­nosed, ac­cord­ing to his mother, with schizophre­nia and bipo­lar dis­or­der.

Try to put your­self in this sit­u­a­tion.

The po­lice shoot and kill a mem­ber of your fam­ily and you can’t get an­swers about why it hap­pened, other than a vague ex­pla­na­tion: Your son was stopped and then strug­gled with po­lice.

In the name of pro­tect­ing the in­ves­tiga­tive process and the pri­vacy of the of­fi­cers — le­git­i­mate con­cerns, to a point, but grossly over­played here — you are told al­most noth­ing.

You hold a fu­neral not know­ing why your son is go­ing to his grave.

Wit­ness ac­counts dif­fer, noth­ing is con­clu­sive, and the au­topsy re­port is with­held for more than four months.

That’s the way the po­lice re­view sys­tem works in Los An­ge­les and much of Cal­i­for­nia, and the public sits in

the dark, wait­ing on find­ings it has no good way to judge.

Last week, the Times broke a story say­ing that LAPD Chief Char­lie Beck had determined that two of­fi­cers in­volved in the shoot­ing of Ford had acted within depart­ment pol­icy, hav­ing stopped the young man be­cause he had been walk­ing away from a group of peo­ple to­ward an al­ley known for drug use.

Beck found the shoot­ing jus­ti­fied be­cause of ev­i­dence that Ford — who had no nar­cotics on him ac­cord­ing to a source — got his hand on the hol­ster hold­ing one of­fi­cer’s gun.

The Po­lice Com­mis­sion’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, how­ever, raised con­cerns about whether there had been legal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to stop Ford in the first place and determined the of­fi­cers had acted in­ap­pro­pri­ately.

And even with that, de­tails of what hap­pened re­mained murky, the public grew rest­less and Mayor Eric Garcetti was fol­low­ing his usual M.O. — high con­tro­versy, low visibility.

The Po­lice Com­mis­sion, mean­while, re­viewed mat­ters in pri­vate, and the public was left to won­der what was go­ing on be­hind the scenes, and whether po­lit­i­cal pres­sure might in­flu­ence an ul­ti­mate find­ing one way or an­other. And this process, as mad­den­ingly long and se­cre­tive as it is, hap­pens to be par for the course.

“I’d say cur­rently, things here in Los An­ge­les are as trans­par­ent as mud,” said Mer­rick Bobb of the Po­lice As­sess­ment Re­source Cen­ter.

“There’s too lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about of­fi­cer­in­volved shoot­ings and other uses of deadly force. It’s hard enough just to get the name of the of­fi­cer in­volved, and that’s [be­cause of] a com­bi­na­tion of state law and other union-driven pro­tec­tions that have been en­acted into law.”

On Tues­day, Ford’s mother, Tri­to­bia Ford, ap­peared be­fore the Po­lice Com­mis­sion and made a plea for jus­tice.

“He wanted to live,” she said of her son. “He walked. He walked the streets. I didn’t want him to walk the streets around there be­cause I know it was un­safe. That was his right. And he didn’t de­serve to die for it.”

A few hours later, in a dra­matic turn of events, the civil­ian com­mis­sion­ers stepped up and unan­i­mously de­liv­ered a stiff re­buke to Beck. The com­mis­sion de­cided, in essence, that it was a bad shoot­ing.

The board found fault with the de­ci­sions by Of­fi­cers Sharl­ton Wampler and An­to­nio Vil­le­gas to draw their weapons. And it faulted Wampler for un­ac­cept­able tac­tics and for open­ing fire on Ford. Some de­tails of the case fi­nally came out in the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port.

I was in the room when the com­mis­sion­ers an­nounced their find­ings and had the im­pres­sion that Beck, who was also there, looked like he’d just been back­handed.

Now, in a strange twist to a bizarre process, Beck will be re­quired to de­cide how to dis­ci­pline the of­fi­cers whose ac­tions he cleared.

Does he fire a cop whose ac­tions he had de­creed to be within pol­icy?

Does he leave him on the force when the Po­lice Com­mis­sion said the use of deadly force was not called for?

Typ­i­cal of the se­cre­tive way the city han­dles th­ese mat­ters, we don’t know when Beck will make those de­ci­sions, nor will we nec­es­sar­ily get an ex­pla­na­tion as to his de­lib­er­a­tions.

“It’s a com­pletely cor­rupt sys­tem,” said Melina Ab­dul­lah, a Cal State L.A. pro­fes­sor who at­tended the hear­ing Tues­day.

Ab­dul­lah was one of the pro­test­ers who briefly blocked Garcetti’s de­par­ture from his Wind­sor Square home Mon­day. She watched him roll up the tinted win­dow of a tank­sized SUV that drove away af­ter the en­counter with demon­stra­tors.

“It’s not just the fam­ily, it’s also the com­mu­nity that has been stalled and scarred in ef­fect,” ACLU at­tor­ney Peter Bib­ring said of the Ford shoot­ing and of­fi­cial re­sponse to it. “The com­mu­nity needs to un­der­stand why an un­armed man is killed. Is it jus­ti­fied? Is it not? The law puts a lot of that out of view of the public.”

There are some states, said Bib­ring, “where in­ves­ti­ga­tions are all public record.” And that trans­parency can en­hance po­lice ac­count­abil­ity and build the com­mu­nity trust needed to give po­lice cit­i­zen al­lies in re­duc­ing crime.

Rob Saltz­man, one of the L.A. po­lice com­mis­sion­ers, told me he thinks hear­ings on po­lice con­duct should be public, not pri­vate. But leg­isla­tive ac­tion would be re­quired to shine more light on the process, and the po­lice lobby is pow­er­ful and op­posed.

That doesn’t mean noth­ing else can be done. Beck can be more tact­ful and open in an­swer­ing ques­tions about po­lice shoot­ings with­out vi­o­lat­ing the law or jeop­ar­diz­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions, and Garcetti can tell him to do so or else.

Ten months is far too long to wait, and this case isn’t over yet. Even when Beck de­cides how to dis­ci­pline the of­fi­cers, he’s not re­quired to of­fer a public ex­pla­na­tion.

It’s not a process any­one can trust.

steve.lopez@la­times.com

Kent Nishimura Los An­ge­les Times

CAL STATE L.A. pro­fes­sor Melina Ab­dul­lah joins pro­test­ers at Tues­day’s L.A. Po­lice Com­mis­sion hear­ing at LAPD head­quar­ters. “It’s a com­pletely cor­rupt sys­tem,” she says of the way po­lice shoot­ings are in­ves­ti­gated.

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