Not eye to eye on Ford

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - sandy.banks@la­times.com

Pa­trol the streets long enough, and you just know when some­one is up to no good.

At least that’s what my cop friends tell me — and why we can’t see eye to eye on the case of Ezell Ford.

Ford was shot to death last sum­mer by two LAPD gang of­fi­cers who were try­ing to de­tain him. The Po­lice Depart­ment in­ves­ti­gated, and Chief Char­lie Beck cleared them of wrong­do­ing.

But the civil­ian Po­lice Com­mis­sion dis­agreed, rul­ing this week that the shoot­ing vi­o­lated LAPD pol­icy be­cause Of­fi­cer Sharl­ton Wampler had no le­git­i­mate rea­son to con­sider Ford a crim­i­nal sus­pect when stop­ping him.

Wampler’s “de­fi­cient tac­tics” led to the fa­tal al­ter­ca­tion, the com­mis­sion said.

The rul­ing in­fu­ri­ated some of­fi­cers, who told their union chief that they are “scared about do­ing their job right now” be­cause “proac­tive po­lice work” might get them in trou­ble.

And it made clear to me why LAPD of­fi­cials never had a good an­swer as to why Ford — whose fam­ily says he had schizophre­nia and bipo­lar dis­or­der — be­came a law en­force­ment tar­get.

“In­ves­tiga­tive rea­sons” was the stan­dard re­sponse.

What were the of­fi­cers in­ves­ti­gat­ing? A hunch that Ford might have nar­cotics in his pocket.

He was walk­ing along the side­walk, not far from a bunch of gang mem­bers hang­ing out on a cor­ner known as a crime hot spot. He didn’t re­spond when Wampler called out, “Hey let me talk to you.”

In­stead, he slid his hands into his front pock­ets and sped up, glanc­ing “ner­vously” at the of­fi­cers as he walked, ac­cord­ing to the in­ves­tiga­tive re­port.

That was enough, one of the of­fi­cers told in­ves­ti­ga­tors, “to make me be­lieve that he pos­si­bly is in pos­ses­sion of nar­cotics.”

His “con­sen­sual en­counter” with Ford “had now

be­come rea­son­able sus­pi­cion to de­tain this in­di­vid­ual.”

I don’t know about you, but I get ner­vous when­ever I see the flash­ing lights of a cop car in my rear view mir­ror. I slow down, change lanes, make sure my cell­phone’s put away. My heart races even when I know I’m not do­ing any­thing wrong.

Now I know that be­ing ner­vous in the pres­ence of a cop is con­sid­ered a sign that you are — or might be think­ing about — com­mit­ting a crime.

The Po­lice Com­mis­sion’s re­port, avail­able on­line, shows what goes into split­sec­ond de­ci­sions that of­fi­cers make and how dif­fi­cult and danger­ous their jobs can be.

It also shows how hard stay­ing out of trou­ble can be for a young man un­lucky enough to live in an area sat­u­rated with gangs and drugs — where a quick­ened pace or ner­vous glance can mark you in the eyes of of­fi­cers as a thug.

The re­port con­veys the of­fi­cers’ ra­tio­nale for stop­ping Ford, but it also points out the sort of con­crete ev­i­dence they lacked:

They never saw Ford in­ter­act with the gang mem­bers on the cor­ner. They didn’t see those young men “en­gag­ing in any crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity.” And they didn’t find nar­cotics or weapons on or near Ford’s body.

Chief Beck doesn’t think that makes it a bad stop — and he’s the one who gets to de­cide how to dis­ci­pline the of­fi­cers.

I met with Beck in his of­fice last month, while one LAPD of­fi­cer was on trial (and later con­victed) for as­sault­ing a sus­pect, two more had been crim­i­nally charged for sim­i­lar mis­con­duct and the Ford case was wind­ing down — or, depend­ing on your per­spec­tive, about to heat up.

The steady drum­beat of “bad cop” videos and ac­counts was trou­bling him then.

He thinks po­lice of­fi­cers in Los An­ge­les have the hard­est jobs in the coun­try. And he be­lieves the depart­ment can do a bet­ter job of pre­par­ing them for it.

We talked about con­sti­tu­tional polic­ing, the prin­ci­ple at the heart of the po­lice com­mis­sion’s rul­ing.

Was Ford a man just walk­ing down the street who de­served to be left alone? Or was he a crim­i­nal sus­pect who needed to be watched and pur­sued?

The chief ac­knowl­edged that young of­fi­cers may need more guid­ance in how to walk that line.

He would like to re­vamp in­struc­tions and have of­fi­cers re­turn to the Po­lice Academy af­ter a few years in the field “for train­ing in com­mu­nity build­ing and con­sti­tu­tional polic­ing” — things they are not pre- pared to un­der­stand when they are cadets, wor­ry­ing about how many push-ups they can do and whether their shoes are shined.

I was heart­ened by his view then; to­day, not so much.

If the chief doesn’t see the flaws in his of­fi­cers’ ap­proach of Ezell Ford, young cops may not be the only ones who need a re­fresher in con­sti­tu­tional polic­ing.

It’s not some­thing you can learn in a lab. It’s a mind-set, not a list of do’s and don’ts. And in this depart­ment, it may re­quire a cul­ture change.

In the video he recorded for of­fi­cers af­ter the Po­lice Com­mis­sion’s rul­ing, Beck promised to sup­port them “just like your part­ner watches your back.”

I think the chief ’s heart is in the right place. Now I wish he’d do more lead­ing, and less stand­ing be­hind.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

A ME­MO­RIAL

to Ezell Ford at 65th Street and Broad­way, near where he was shot by LAPD of­fi­cers who were try­ing to de­tain him.

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