Over a third of the people shot by the LAPD in 2015 had documented signs of mental illness, over three times the number from the previous year. On Tuesday, March 1, 2016, the Los Angeles Times released staggering statistics concerning Los Angeles police officers disproportionately shooting both black and mentally ill suspects in the most comprehensive report on use of force data ever compiled by the Los Angeles Police Department (“LAPD”). The report by the Los Angeles Times was presented on Tuesday to the Los Angeles Police Commission.
The recent report seeks to emphasize that most police interactions with the public do not result in use of force.
The Times report comes at a fitting time, as it reminds us of two problems all law enforcement is currently facing across the country: (1) how to deal with growing numbers of mentally ill and (2) how to heal strained relationships with the African-American community, where blacks are shot in greatly disparate numbers.
The recent report seeks to emphasize that most police interactions with the public do not result in use of force. In 2015, the LAPD used force in 1,924 cases out of the 1.5 million recorded interactions between the department and the public. Overall, the use-of-force cases amounted to merely 0.13 percent of all interactions. However, in the cases where there was use-of-force, the numbers were concerning. In particular, the number of cases of use-of-force against blacks and the mentally ill were alarming enough to get conversation flowing.
Police Chief Charlie Beck hopes that the police report is used to inform people about police use of force. Beck said, “[t]his is the framework upon which we will build a discussion that I think needs to happen not only in LA but probably in the whole country.” Ultimately, this report helps to open up discourse among the Police Commission, the LAPD, and the public. Beck goes on to say, “[w]e’re more than willing to look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘What’s occurring and how can we do better?’”
In total, 37 percent of people shot by the LAPD in 2015 had “an indication of mental illness.”
Even though the percentage of use-of-force cases is still small compared to the number of interactions as a whole; the report released by the LAPD shows that the number of mentally ill people shot by officers increased from 5 in 2014 up to 14 this past year in 2015. In total, 37 percent of people shot by the LAPD in 2015 had “an indication of mental illness.”
As for the increase in the number of mentally ill people shot, Beck did not believe there was any particular reason for it. However, Beck did note that the officers had more interactions with the number of mentally ill than before, as the number of homeless people has significantly increased in their jurisdiction.
Brittany Weissman, an executive director with the National Alliance on Mental Illness is calling for more de-escalation training for officers paired with diversionary programs for the mentally ill that are arrested. She believes, “[E]very law enforcement agency has room for improvement in dealing with people with mental illness and the homeless, and the LAPD is no exception.”
Not only has the number of shootings of the mentally ill increased in LA, but the city’s courts have also seen a significant increase in the number of mental health cases. For example, from 2014 to 2015, the number of competency cases for defendants who were found too mentally ill for trial increased by 50 percent in the Los Angeles Superior Court.
Verah Bradford, the head deputy public defender at the county’s mental health court wonders, “[i]s it because more people are mentally ill or is it because more people are jammed into homelessness and commit behaviors that offend the public?”
Judge James Bianco, the judge presiding over mental health court hearings, noted that they “[n]eed three times as many attorneys, three times as many doctors for evaluations, and three times as many treatment beds.”
[Also] 35 percent of those shot by the LAPD were black in a city where blacks make up only nine percent of the population.
Based on the report, between 2011 and 2015, of the 223 people shot by LAPD officers, 77 were black. That is 35 percent of those shot by the LAPD were black in a city where blacks make up only nine percent of the population.
Captain John McMahon emphasized to the commission that it is important to look at crime and victim statistics for context when looking at black shooting victims. In the data presented, 42 percent of homicide victims and 39 percent of those arrested were black.
Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said, “[i]t’s not surprising that if the LAPD is disproportionately stopping and searching African Americans that they are also disproportionately using force, including deadly force. This is a point that we’ve been trying to make for a long time.”
Two of the most high profile incidents involved officers fatally shooting black homeless men.
A few shooting incidents from last year continue to garner attention. Two of the most high profile incidents involved officers fatally shooting black homeless men.
One of the incidents, the shooting of Charly “Africa” Keunang, was on skid row, a place known for inhabitants who deal with mental illness and drug abuse. Police said officers shot Keunang after he grabbed an officer’s holstered gun; however, witnesses at the scene gave conflicting accounts of what occurred.
At the commission meeting on Tuesday where the Times report was being presented, protestors disrupted when Beck began speaking. They were angry about the death of Charly “Africa,” the black homeless man shot by Los Angeles six times police exactly a year before. Although the protestors were angry and fueled by the one-year anniversary of his shooting, the disruption remained peaceful, and no altercations arose.
The other incident, the shooting of Ezell Ford, a 25 year-old black male, was near the Venice boardwalk. The LAPD released a narrative, alleging that Ford tackled an officer and went for his gun before police shot at him. However, a family friend of the Fords, Derene Henderson, who witnessed part of the incident said she saw no struggle between the officers and Ford.
Ford began suffering from mental illness as a teen, and was eventually diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Residents from the area say that police officers knew about Ford’s mental health.
[Two members of the Commission] want to include provisions on calling officers to make every available effort to de-escalate confrontations before actually resorting to force.
Based on all that has happened over the past few years both across the nation and in Los Angeles itself, two members of the Los Angeles Police Commission are calling for an overhaul of the LAPD’s use-of-force policy. They want to include provisions on calling officers to make every available effort to de-escalate confrontations before actually resorting to force.
The report by the LAPD’s Inspector General, Alexander Bustamante, includes twelve recommendations proposed by Matthew Johnson, president of the Police Commission, and Robert Saltzman, Commissioner. These recommendations emphasize the need for officers to de-escalate potentially violent situations, with the attempts being considered as factors when the commission reviews whether a particular use-of-force was justified.
One recommendation in the report says that the LAPD’s use-of-force-policy should be revised to include the expectation that officers move to a position of “tactical advantage” when faced with a threat, if the move can be reasonably accomplished in a way that is consistent with officer and public safety. Essentially, this emphasizes that deadly force should only be exercised when other reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or are impracticable.
Another recommendation also asks the department to make sure “that all investigations and evaluations of use-of-force incidents include written consideration of whether de-escalation was feasible, and for deadly force incidents, whether reasonable alternatives had been exhausted or appeared impracticable before the use of such force.”
Perhaps most important of the 12 proposals are recommendations calling for de-escalation topics to be included in all of the use-of-force training and for the LAPD to look at how law enforcement agencies across the nation handle their de-escalation training in use-of-force cases.
For now, the LAPD’s current policy on use-of-force uses the “reverence for human life” as its guiding principle.
Even though many have taken the recommendations positively, there are a few kinks that still need to be worked out. Lou Turriaga, director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League does not believe it is a collaborative process with the Commission, stating “We are very concerned that the recommendations as written may jeopardize officer and community safety. We’re afraid that this policy does not take into account the split-second, life-and-death decisions police officers must make in the field.”
If approved, the proposals and recommendations could have a great impact on how the Police Commission determines whether officers involved in use-of-force situations were justified in using such force. For now, the LAPD’s current policy on use-of-force uses the “reverence for human life” as its guiding principle.
Johnson, however, feels strongly about his proposals. “That can’t be just words on a page. The importance of de-escalation needs to be emphasized throughout every facet of the organization,” said Johnson.
President Craig Lally has a little bit of a different view for officers. He explains, “[w]hether it’s totally justified or not, they’re going to get reamed, they’re going to get second-guessed. It’s a no-win situation for the officer.”
For now, the report is yet to be reviewed by the full Police Commission.
Even though there are many questions raised, the answers do not seem very clear. However, it is clear that something needs to be done not only in Los Angeles, but also across the nation. With reform in use-of-force situations and reform in the treatment of mental health, small steps can be taken to ensure these numbers decrease. As Police Chief Beck said, discourse is needed for things to improve.