Police under fire in Sacramento, Los Angeles

file_000-4Big cities throughout California continue to be roiled by police issues. Oakland and San Francisco have gotten the most attention because of high-profile police chiefs being forced out over a sex scandal involving an underage prostitute and because of unarmed African Americans being killed by officers, respectively. San Francisco’s police were recently sharply criticized by the U.S. Justice Department, and federal oversight of Oakland’s police, now in its 13th year, is likely to continue for many years more.

But the two iconic Bay Area cities are hardly alone in having police problems.

In Sacramento, last month’s release of a video showing officers’ July 11 killing of Joseph Mann, a mentally ill African American who was carrying a knife, has shaken public faith in the Police Department. The agency refused to provide the video or to offer key details about the incident until forced to by the Sacramento Bee’s release of a surveillance video on Sept. 20. It was revealed that before officers shot Mann 14 times, they tried to run him over, though he appeared no immediate threat to anyone.

A casualty of the controversy may be the Sacramento Community Police Commission, which formed last year partly in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Last week, the chairman of the commission — Sacramento pastor Les Simmons — abruptly resigned. At a press conference, he said the commission’s lack of authority to subpoena witnesses and conduct independent investigations left him feeling he was “not being relevant and true to my community.” The panel is essentially a city advisory body.

Days before the Bee released the video, Sacramento Police Chief Sam Somers Jr. announced he was retiring in December, when new Mayor Darrell Steinberg takes office. Somers insisted his decision was unrelated to his officers’ fatal shooting of Mann. But the Sacramento Bee reported that Somers wasn’t comfortable with the new era in which police are routinely called on to defend and justify their actions.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Commission — which has the level of authority that Simmons wants in Sacramento — has broken with Police Chief Charlie Beck over two police killings in 2015. On Sept. 20, a near-unanimous board ruled that both cases violated LAPD’s use-of-force guidelines. In one case, James Joseph Byrd — a 45-year-old white man with a history of mental illness — was shot to death after throwing a beer bottle that hit a police car. In the other, Norma Guzman — a 37-year-old Latina with a history of mental illness — was shot to death while brandishing a knife and approaching officers.

Beck offered a particularly vigorous defense of his officers’ handling of the Guzman case. But commissioners — and members of the public — repeatedly questioned why officers didn’t use a Taser to subdue the woman.

L.A. officers must ‘choose your life or your job’

This drew a fierce counterattack from the LAPD union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, on its website:

Run away. If a police officer is confronted by a suspect with a weapon, those entrusted to set policies for the Police Department believe officers should run away. That’s the recent finding from the Los Angeles Police Commission which has turned Monday morning quarterbacking into a weekly agenda item at the three-ring circus they preside over every Tuesday morning. …

The Commission is becoming nothing more than a politically motivated rubber stamp for the warped worldview of a handful of activists that they pander to. …

The message the Los Angeles Police Commission is sending to officers confronted with a violent and dangerous suspect is clear: You can save your life or save your job, but you cannot do both. You choose.

The Police Commission dismissed the union criticism and followed up last week by approving new policies meant to reduce civilian deaths and to promote transparency. The policies require significantly more information to be released about shootings involving officers; an increased emphasis on role-playing training using “real world” scenarios; and regular evaluations of how serious incidents that don’t end in tragedy are handled to develop a best-practices approach to scaling down confrontations with individuals.

Commissioner Steve Soboroff — the only member to side with Chief Beck and defend the fatal shootings of Boyd and Guzman — joined in the unanimous vote to force changes on the LAPD.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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