25 Years Later, Signs of Trouble in Los Angeles

Twenty-five years after the videotaped beating of Rodney King on March 3, 1991, caused a national sensation, little is reported about similar specific acts of police brutality in Los Angeles, which may very well be a sign of the progress that has been made.

And yet shootings by police in Los Angeles County nearly doubled in the last year, to 45 cases from 23, 19 of them fatal. One week in July alone included six different officer-involved shootings. In one a suspect was shot in the back after supposedly attacking officers with his skateboard—an accusation the police involved later admitted was a lie. On Feb. 9 a 22-year-old man was shot and killed by police at a park in Anaheim after complaints about a man knocking on a resident’s door and ringing the bell. At press time no weapon had been recovered at the scene of the incident.

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A study released by a local National Public Radio station, KPCC, in November reports that between 2010 and 2014 over 375 people were shot by L.A. police; one in four of them had been unarmed. And though African-Americans represent only 8 percent of the county’s total population, 24 percent of those fatally shot by police between 2010 and 2014 were African-American.

In many ways the state of California as a whole fares even worse. In 2015, the state ranked first in people killed by police; its 210 victims constituted roughly 20 percent of all those killed by police across the country. And Kern County, located inland in California’s Central Valley, ranked first in the nation last year in police-related deaths per capita.

It goes without saying that when it comes to statistics like these, the devil is in the details. The fact that a shooting occurred does not in itself prove an unwarranted use of force—though 375 cases certainly sounds extreme. But the fact that the KPCC study found that not a single officer in Los Angeles has been prosecuted for an on-duty shooting since 2000 raises further concerns.

As is true in so many other communities grappling with these issues, there are lots of explanations and solutions on offer in Los Angeles—from better training in de-escalation techniques or interacting with the mentally ill to increased use of Tasers and bean bag shotguns. The L.A. police department recently took the unusual step of instituting an award for officers who do not use deadly force in situations where they could have done so.

Matthew Johnson, an African-American entertainment lawyer recently elected president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, argues that a primary problem is the difficulty the geography of Los Angeles poses to building relationships. “When you walk around New York,” he told Los Angeles Magazine in February, “you see police officers constantly interacting with people, whether it’s in Times Square or a neighborhood in Brooklyn.” To have the same number of cops per capita in Los Angeles would require an additional 7,000 officers, and culturally speaking there is not an awful lot of “walking around” in much of the city.

The consequence, Johnson argues, is not only that normal people do not have regular engagements with the police, but that the average officer’s instincts become formed to expect only trouble. “Most of our officers are going from call to call.... If you’re just dealing with people on their worst days, that’s going to give you a skewed perspective on the community you’re serving.”

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