Set­ting rules for po­lice stops

Dif­fer­ing views of the Ezell Ford shoot­ing point to the need for clear guide­lines for LAPD of­fi­cers.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - Os An­ge­les

LPo­lice Chief Char­lie Beck and the L.A. Po­lice Com­mis­sion sent mixed mes­sages Tues­day about the Ezell Ford shoot­ing, re­flect­ing a sig­nif­i­cant dis­par­ity be­tween what the depart­ment’s uni­formed lead­ers think is a rea­son­able ex­cuse for po­lice to stop a sus­pect on the street — and what the depart­ment’s civil­ian over­seers be­lieve. It’s a danger­ous dif­fer­ence of opin­ion, be­cause it leaves city cops with in­con­sis­tent guid­ance about how to do their jobs.

Ac­cord­ing to Beck, the shoot­ing of the 25-year-old men­tally ill man — and the events lead­ing up to it on Aug. 11 — were ap­pro­pri­ate and de­fen­si­ble. Ford was stopped near a group of known gang mem­bers in a lo­ca­tion known for drug ac­tiv­ity, and of­fi­cers said they thought from his be­hav­ior that he was try­ing to get rid of drugs when they ap­proached him.

The Po­lice Com­mis­sion, how­ever, con­cluded that of­fi­cers Sharl­ton Wampler and An­to­nio Vil­le­gas vi­o­lated depart­ment pol­icy when they stopped Ford in the first place, set­ting into mo­tion the strug­gle that led to his death. The com­mis­sion also determined that Wampler had no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for shoot­ing Ford, but that Vil­le­gas did.

It now falls to Beck to de­ter­mine, based on the find­ings of the Po­lice Com­mis­sion, whether the of­fi­cers should be rep­ri­manded, suspended or fired. (Just as it falls to Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to de­ter­mine whether the of­fi­cers should be crim­i­nally pros­e­cuted.) We strongly urge him to de­vise a pun­ish­ment that fits the of­fense, not one that makes a po­lit­i­cal state­ment. In the past, the chief has openly de­fied the will of the com­mis­sion­ers by hand­ing out mild pun­ish­ments or no dis­ci­pline at all.

What­ever hap­pens, this mustn’t be the end of the dis­cus­sion about the use of deadly force, about race re­la­tions, or about what con­sti­tutes a le­git­i­mate stop of a sus­pect. Al­ready, the divide be­tween the chief and the com­mis­sion over the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of stop­ping Ford has put the city and its po­lice force in an un­ten­able po­si­tion that Craig Lally, pres­i­dent of the po­lice union, summed up best: “What is an of­fi­cer sup­posed to do?”

Good ques­tion. Here are some oth­ers: What con­sti­tutes the “rea­son­able sus­pi­cion” that po­lice are re­quired to have be­fore they stop a sus­pect? Should of­fi­cers ig­nore their hunches if they don’t have more tan­gi­ble ev­i­dence of wrong­do­ing? How can train­ing be added to min­i­mize the like­li­hood that such in­ci­dents will oc­cur in the fu­ture? It’s im­per­a­tive that the chief clear up the rules for of­fi­cers, who face life-and-death de­ci­sions.

L.A. pol­i­cy­mak­ers and po­lice are now part of a na­tional dia­logue on what con­sti­tutes a rea­son­able stop, and when, if ever, pro­fil­ing and stop-and-frisk tech­niques are ap­pro­pri­ate law en­force­ment tools. The LAPD, which has been through decades of cri­sis and re­form, and which has made sig­nif­i­cant but not-yet-suf­fi­cient strides in im­prov­ing com­mu­nity re­la­tions, must be a leader in this na­tional dis­cus­sion.

Mayor Eric Garcetti has been largely si­lent on the is­sue. It’s time for him to step up and help the chief ne­go­ti­ate the af­ter­math and help as­sure the public that their con­cerns about po­lice meth­ods and the use of force haven’t been ig­nored.

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