Bigger, Badder LAPD Cops: What Could Go Wrong?

Originally published by The Los Angeles Times:

Be Sensitive

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck “wants to swarm high-crime neighborhoods with more than 200 highly trained officers from the elite Metropolitan Division without undermining years of progress the department has made in building better relationships with those communities,” report Kate Mather, Richard Winton and Cindy Chang in The Times.

Metro Division cops are the best of the best — the department’s elite. So what could go wrong?

“Parachuting reinforcements into unfamiliar territory on this scale marks a change from the LAPD’s longtime community policing tactic of using beat cops to patrol neighborhoods. Metro officers are known more for their specialized tactical and weapons training than for their skills in building relationships with residents,” their report says.

Civil rights lawyer Connie Rice told The Times that she’s concerned the Metro Division deployment may make things worse. “The Metro officers are a super paramilitary version of policing,” she said. “They are not the cops who have relationships and know the communities. They tend to be very aggressive, historically. They don’t get to know a community…. They don’t get to know the people they police or, for that matter, the local officers.”

Today’s cartoon is centered around a rather hilarious quote by Los Angeles Police Commission President Steve Soboroff: Metro Division police “are not Ferguson-like. They are not South Carolina-like. Our training — sensitivity training, use of force training — is off the charts.”

Really, truly … do these people ever stop and listen to themselves?

Given the state of police-community relations in Los Angeles and across the United States — and I mean “community” in the broad, dictionary sense, not the euphemistic stand-in for “black neighborhood” — the burden of proof is on the cops. Asking us to “just trust them” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Of course, there are establishment types who do still trust the police. Last week, for example, New York Times columnist David Brooks argued that police body cameras violate privacy rights — not for you and me, but for the cops. “Cop-cams…undermine communal bonds,” Brooks wrote. “Putting a camera on someone is a sign that you don’t trust him, or he doesn’t trust you. When a police officer is wearing a camera, the contact between an officer and a civilian is less likely to be like intimate friendship and more likely to be oppositional and transactional.”

I got a ticket a few days ago (for talking on my cellphone while driving). You know what?

It wasn’t an “intimate friendship.”

Although that would certainly be a nice standard to which the Metropolitan Division should aspire.

When four cops have to use deadly force to subdue a man, something’s wrong

Originally published by The Los Angeles Times:

Just Cause

The police shooting of a 39-year-old homeless man in the skid row section of downtown Los Angeles is prompting comparisons and reactions familiar to those that followed police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York. The identity of the man is still not clear, but he was known as “Africa” to some who knew him on the streets.

The incident is still under investigation but many question how dangerous a man without a gun can be to four highly trained law enforcement professionals, all armed. The LAPD says its officers first approached Africa in response to a robbery call, and that its officers shot the man to prevent him from taking one of the officers’ guns. The revelation that Africa was a convicted bank robber who served a long prison term seems to bolster the image of a dangerous person. In Ferguson, police also pointed to the victim’s alleged involvement in a robbery.

Then there’s the context of lousy community relations. “Skid row has been home to police occupation under the Safer Cities Initiative,” Steve Diaz, an organizer for the Los Angeles Community Action Network, said at a meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission’s weekly meeting. “They clear people out in the name of gentrification.”

Since at least one of the LAPD officers was wearing a body camera, the investigation is also being viewed as a test case for a technology that advocates hope will hold rogue cops accountable and defend honest ones against folks’ charges of brutality. The claim of a St. Louis man that a policeman turned off his dashboard cam before beating him, following a similar story in New Orleans late last year, has skeptics wondering whether videotaping really is a solution in such cases.

Maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember domestic policing before it was militarized and excessive force became the norm, but for me this is as much a story about officers who escalate violence far too quickly as it is about other relevant issues, such as racism.

Writing about Michael Brown, the man killed in Ferguson, a letter writer to the Wall Street Journal noted: “It is unacceptable that Officer Darren Wilson had access to a Taser and intentionally didn’t carry it. We will never know whether a Taser would have de-escalated the encounter between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown, and prevented Mr. Brown’s death.”

What should be something from Kindergarten Cop 101 has gotten lost in many cases: Police should do everything they can to avoid violence in the first place. Then, if a peaceful resolution isn’t possible, force should be escalated gradually. That did not appear to be what happened in Brown’s case. And Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy shot to death two seconds after a rookie officer got out of his police car, didn’t appear to have a chance to cooperate or surrender. Akai Gurley, 28, was killed by a bullet fired by a nervous NYPD officer who heard a noise in the dark stairwell of a housing project.

You can’t blame police officers for being scared when they confront possible suspects. But it’s fair to expect proportionality based on, first of all, the alleged offense. It’s hard to tell from the video in the L.A. case, but there is reason to suspect that this incident moved from confrontation to physical engagement way too quickly. Then there’s the proportionality of physical force: You’ve got four armed officers taking on an unarmed man. Frankly, if they don’t have what it takes to keep the guy down, they need to go back to the police academy.

Too Fit Not to Acquit

A New York grand jury declined to indict a police officer for the fatal chokehold that killed Eric Garner in Staten Island in part because obesity contributed to his death. You’re on notice, fatties: if you’re not fit, they will acquit — the police who kill you.

But the President is a Black Man

A New York City grand jury decided not to indict a NYPD officer despite videotape that clearly shows Eric Garner, an African-American father of six about to be arrested for selling untaxed loose cigarettes, being strangled to death by the cops. Takeaway: symbolic changes like an African-American president won’t change the system itself.

The System Works

In both the cases of the police officer who shot unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the one who strangled Eric Garner to death in Staten Island, New York, grand juries and prosecutors bent over backward to consider evidence that they might be guilty. What if the system treated blacks suspected of killing white cops with the same deference?

The 7% Solution

From the New York Times, August 19, 2014: “Encouraging more participation in the democratic process in a community that feels alienated from political power – hence the demonstrations – seems like an obviously good idea; and one that’s particularly compelling because it’s so simple. Voting is an alternative to protesting in the streets.” The establishment, especially Democrats, are starting voter registration drives and using Ferguson as a rallying cry in black communities. According to the statistics, blacks are 7% short of no longer falling prey to trigger-happy white cops.

Changing the Man in Charge Doesn’t Change the System

Watching our millionaire president hobnobbing with celebrities at his luxurious vacation in Martha’s Vineyard as Ferguson, Missouri convulses in rioting after a cop shot unarmed Michael Brown, it’s obvious that electing a black president isn’t enough to change reality for millions of less privileged blacks. The only thing that separates Michael Brown from Barack Obama is a thin veneer of borrowed privilege.

Back to Normal

Pundits and politicians are looking forward to the “recovery” following race riots in Ferguson, Missouri. What will “back to normal” look like? Police randomly stopping young black men in the streets just because, checkpoints by heavily armed uniformed goons, police shootings of unarmed men, high unemployment and underemployment.

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