The LAPD's Unprecedented Plan to Shoot Fewer People

A union official says the new policy "will get officers killed, plain and simple."

by Joe Domanick
Apr 13 2016, 7:00pm

Los Angeles Police Department SWAT officers walk toward their vehicles after one officer was wounded and a suspect killed in 2014. (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

"Every second counts, and hesitation will kill you," Jamie McBride told the Los Angeles Police Commission last month.

McBride, a director of the LAPD's rank-and-file union, was testifying at a hearing about a proposal to establish new use-of-force guidelines for local cops. And he didn't mince words.

The proposed rules, McBride promised, "will get officers killed, plain and simple."

He went on to deliver a chilling warning to the five civilians who sit on the commission: "Make no mistake, if an officer is killed as a result .... [his] blood will be on your hands."

McBride's comments weren't entirely unexpected. Cops don't like change. Traditionally, many prefer to operate in shades of gray that give them room to maneuver. Basically, they like to do their thing unfettered.

But the union chief's eerie testimony was overshadowed by a just-released report on officer-involved-shootings in LA over the course of 2015. The commission, which sets Los Angeles Police Department policy, could hardly avoid the glaring numbers spelled out in the report: 48 officer-involved shootings, 38 of which hit suspects, 21 of them fatally. (On Tuesday, the commission agreed with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck that the fatal shooting of an unarmed homeless man last May was unjustified.)

The ten shots that hit no one were not warning shots, either—LAPD cops had simply missed their targets.

Of course, this isn't just an LA problem. Since 2014, police killings caught on camera have fueled a national movement for change that only seems to grow stronger each month. But no one listening to McBride that day could have avoided the stark comparison with other big-city police departments. In Chicago, with a population that's somewhat smaller than that of LA, and where gun violence seems to set new records each year, officers shot 22 people in 2015, killing eight. In New York, with roughly three times as many police officers and a population about twice as large as LA's, officers shot 32 people last year, nine fatally.

So LA posts a test case for reformers nationwide: If they can do it here, they should be able to do it anywhere.

Now the proposal that angered McBride so much was far from radical. It focused on training cops to avoid the kinds of confrontations that lead to officers shooting unarmed civilians—many of whom, as critics point out, are often stopped on the flimsiest of pretexts.

The strategy is called "de-escalation."

The driving force behind LA's new strategy is Commission President Matthew Johnson, who was named to the post just last year. The managing partner of an entertainment law firm of 30 attorneys, Johnson is an African American native of New Jersey and graduate of New York University Law School who moved to LA "literally three weeks" after the 1992 LA riots, he recalls.

In formulating the strategy, Johnson took a careful lawyer's approach. First, he ordered a ten-year review of LAPD shootings. At the same time, he considered a wide range of training policies that guide officer behavior and ultimately influence tactics, including procedures for handling the mentally ill and alternatives to using deadly force weapons.

Based on that review, the commission concluded that the department's previous approach, which called on officers to demonstrate "a reverence for human life," was way too vague. Instead, the commission wants the LAPD to focus not just on minimizing shootings, but also training and rewarding officers who use de-escalation tactics to avoid them. Perhaps most important, the commission wants to hold accountable cops who go rogue.

In its revised policy guidelines, the commission decided that henceforth, shooting a suspect would be considered "in-policy"—that is, legit—only if it came as a last resort.

One thing LA has going for it is that a key component of better police accountability is already in place. Last year, Chief Beck and the commission began instituting a requirement that all patrol officers wear body cameras, and that every patrol car be equipped with a camera too. Of course, outside critics were already unhappy with some elements of the camera policy, namely that cops have the right to review any use-of-force tapes before making a sworn shooting statement, thus allowing the officer to present their account in the best possible light.

Nevertheless, the support of Beck—and the grudging acceptance of the union—gave the commission what it considered a crucial new oversight tool in adjudicating use-of-force incidents.

"The cameras have made a huge difference," Johnson says. "At the end of the day, the video is what the video is. You can only explain so much, but the video is going to stand on its own."

Beck and the commission had already begun reviewing officer-involved shootings to consider not just whether the shooting was in- or out-of-policy, but whether the tactics leading up to the shooting were appropriate. So some elements of the revised guidelines weren't exactly new.What is different, however, is that, as a result of the commission's decision, de-escalation will be written into official policy mandating that officers be trained in de-escalation techniques, which they must use in their interactions with citizens.

Failure to do so will now be cause to declare a shooting out-of-policy, even if the officer, because of their failure, was in a position where they felt they had to fire to stay alive. An out-of-policy finding has become a serious matter in the LAPD, one that can result in anything from required retaining to a reprimand, loss of promotion, and firing.

Some of the de-escalation training is also already in place. Shooting scenarios are now performed with actors who play suspects. The scenarios graphically demonstrate how to avoid the need to shoot, focusing on when a trainee might have used de-escalation, but didn't.

"They learn how the right way of talking to a suspect, and the right display of empathy and body language [that] can de-escalate a situation," says Chief Beck.

Indeed, despite the union's objections, some experts outside the LAPD believe a well-executed de-escalation training regime can make officers—and the public—safer. According to Michael Gennaco, who oversaw reform efforts for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, officers can slow down an escalating situation by taking cover and calling for back-up or specialized units. They can also try to calm people down and be careful not to get so close to a suspect that a mere gesture might cause tragedy.

Clearly, as Gennaco puts it, "Some shootings are unavoidable; you'll never get to zero."

But, he adds, "You can strive to get the number as low as possible, and avoid the 'lawful but awful' kinds of deadly force incidents that we have seen too many times."

Still, the question remains: Is a de-escalation policy sufficient in itself?

Training in avoiding interactions that can quickly spin out of control is obviously critical—but only if it's built into community policing strategy. Successful police-citizen interaction ultimately has to be based on efforts to gain the acceptance and respect of the public. De-escalation of volatile incidents is just a first step.

Whether they fall "in" or "out" of the new policy guidelines, police shootings will continue to shock the public conscience unless police departments establish a clear goal of earning legitimacy in the communities they serve.

Near the end of my interview with Matt Johnson, I ask him how the LA Police Commission will monitor compliance with the new policy, which is scheduled to be implemented within the next 30 days.

"We have an inspector general with a staff of forty auditors and investigators who will insure the policy is complied with," he says.

"And if this policy doesn't work, we'll try something else."

Joe Domanick is West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report and Associate Director of the Center for Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. This column was published in partnership with The Crime Report and Witness LA.