Following national coverage of officer-involved shootings (OIS) last summer, media coverage of all such shootings has expanded. Additional coverage will be generated in coming months by the Los Angeles Police Department’s determination as to whether several high-profile OIS this year were justified or “in policy.” Each of these determinations will generate additional coverage that may give the public a false impression about our officers and the work they do to assure the safety of the people of Los Angeles, including the over 40 million who visit this great city every year.
The precise circumstances that lead to each OIS are unique, except that in every instance, the officers involved made split-second, life-and-death decisions based on their perception that their own lives or those of others were in danger.
Lives in danger
The critical factor in every OIS is that an officer perceives that his or her own life or the life of another is in imminent peril. The daily work of police officers is stressful and dangerous. They deal with situations in society that most would prefer to avoid. Confrontations with aggressive, violent individuals are increasingly common. A growing lack of respect for the police and for the law in general fueled by sensationalist media coverage encourages certain individuals to be non-compliant and combative. Police officers must be vigilant as they go about their duties of keeping communities safe from crime and danger. Officers are trained to protect the public and to protect themselves in dangerous situations. That will not, and should not, ever change.
Each OIS is Unique
The specific circumstances that lead to an OIS are always unique. An infinite number of possible actions and reactions can bring on the perception of imminent, life-threatening danger that requires officers to make split-second decisions based on training and instinct. The public needs to understand the vast array of situations our officers face every day—any one of which can suddenly require a decision as to whether or not to use deadly force. There are so many variables in the distinctive circumstances police officers face in their day to day activities that training cannot possibly cover every one of them. Each decision to use deadly force is complex and fact based. This complexity and the need to discover all of the facts is the reason it takes months to thoroughly investigate and reach a conclusion about every shooting.
Changes in society have dramatically increased police encounters with combative individuals
Changes in our society and our legal system have dramatically multiplied the number of times a day police officers are called on to deal with disrespectful, non-compliant and combative people. Two of the most obvious changes include:
Homeless and mentally ill individuals are on our streets rather than at facilities that can help them. It is well-documented that support for the mentally ill in our society has declined. Many disturbed individuals now reside on the streets contributing to the significant homeless population in Los Angeles. While the Los Angeles City government and LAPD recognize this problem and are working to address it, the solutions are expensive and therefore minimally available. In the entire city, there is only one system-wide Mental Assessment Response Team. Police officers make every effort to diffuse volatile situations and use non-lethal force, but when resistance occurs officers have been charged with a duty to protect the public and themselves. Whether the person posing the threat is mentally ill or not cannot be taken into account when the threat is immediate and lethal. Very simply stated, if someone grabs an officer’s gun, regardless of mental capacity, force must be used to halt the imminent and lethal threat.
Fewer consequences for belligerent behavior. Los Angeles is experiencing rising crime rates for the first time in a decade. The mayor, the Police Chief, and certainly the officers of the LAPD, believe that at least a portion of the increase in crime can be traced to laws and policies designed to lower crowding in our prisons and jails. Proposition 47 was promoted as a way to keep non-violent offenders out of jail, lower prison populations and give these offenders an opportunity to mend their ways. Likewise, an earlier statute, AB109, was designed to move non-violent criminals to county jails where—due to overcrowding—they are often released to a parole system that lacks resources to monitor them. But the “non-violent” designation is a technicality, based on the most recent conviction, even if that person may have previously committed violent crimes. This entire exercise, however well meaning, is a nightmare for police officers who must now deal with an influx of criminals that are back on the streets. The lack of penalties for their actions make them bolder and less concerned about the consequences of their behavior toward authority and society.
A police officer’s actions prior to perceiving imminent danger should have no bearing on a decision to use force
Police officers have the right to return home safely every night. Based on the standard set by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, “The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” This has been the established standard for over 25 years and comes from the highest court in the land.
The new standard recently applied by the Police Commission to rule one officer’s shooting in the Ezell Ford case “out of policy” seeks to take into account the officer’s actions prior to the struggle in which Ford attempted to take the officer’s gun. According to this new standard, if the officer’s tactics prior to the stop were deficient, the officer must forfeit his life or the use of force will be out of policy. The threat of being killed with his own weapon was irrelevant in their decision. This new standard grows out of a California Supreme Court case involving lawsuits about negligent behavior that seeks to determine tort liability, not constitutional principles. This new standard defies logic, runs counter to established policy, puts officers in danger, and should be removed.