Imagine holding a job in which your most crucial decisions are evaluated and judged by people who have never held your job or even a similar one. Imagine further that those decisions must often be made in the blink of an eye, and that they can literally mean the difference between life and death. And now imagine that the people passing judgment on your decisions are not selected based on their experience in the relevant field, but rather so as to satisfy some ill-defined “diversity” formula. If you can imagine these things, you have some idea of what it’s like to be a police officer in Los Angeles.
Back in June, I wrote in this space on the baffling decision reached by the Los Angeles Police Commission in the matter of Ezell Ford, who was shot and killed by two LAPD officers on August 11, 2014. The commission, whose five members are appointed by the mayor, ruled that one of the officers had acted within policy in shooting Ford but the other had not. The incident is more fully described in the linked column, but I’ll summarize it here as follows: Two officers assigned to the gang unit at the LAPD’s Newton Division, in South Los Angeles, were driving on a street known for its gang activity. They attempted to stop and question Ford, who was a member of the gang in that neighborhood. Ford tackled one of the officers and attempted to disarm him, prompting both officers to shoot him.
The commission’s ruling, holding that one officer had acted improperly while the other was blameless, was widely derided within the LAPD, all the more so after commissioner Paula Madison took to the local media and attempted to explain it, beclowning herself in the effort and revealing herself to be motivated by a racial agenda rather than a desire to act as a fair and impartial factfinder.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti must have been paying attention, for in July he announced that Madison was stepping down from the commission and would be replaced by entertainment attorney Matthew Johnson. Keep in mind that Mayor Garcetti does not necessarily object to his police commissioners being motivated by a racial agenda, but he insists that they be more guarded about it in their public pronouncements. Madison had shown bit too much leg, so she had to go.
On a side note, the Los Angeles Times displayed a curious lack of curiosity about Madison’s departure, reporting that her term had expired. But had it? Police commissioners serve five-year terms, and Madison was appointed in 2013. If Times writer Kate Mather asked about this apparent discrepancy, it wasn’t mentioned in the story. Perhaps her term had “expired” in the sense that she was seen as a potential liability to Mayor Garcetti.
It goes without saying that Madison, who is black, had to be replaced by another black. With only five members, the proper diversity of sexes, sexual identities, and ethnicities must be maintained. Diversity of opinion, however, is absent: they’re all liberals, some perhaps more than others.
Now enter Mr. Johnson, a profile of whom appeared in the L.A. Times on Sept. 15. The profile, also written by Kate Mather, opens as such stories almost always do: with a tale of Johnson’s oppression at the hands of police officers. “Matt Johnson remembers sitting on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike on a cold December day,” writes Mather, “his hands cuffed behind his back, watching a group of white police officers search his car.” “Anybody that has an experience like that is not going to forget it,” Johnson told Mather.
Nor should he forget it, perhaps, but the question to be asked is: In what context should Johnson remember the incident, and how should the memory influence his decisions as a member of the Police Commission? We are informed in the story that the New Jersey stop was groundless and that Johnson was released with “no explanation, no sorry, no nothing.” Will Johnson presume the same lack of civility in the LAPD officers he now oversees? And is the LAPD’s lack of civility, to the degree it actually exists, the greatest concern facing the residents of Los Angeles? Johnson may believe so. “Today, there really isn’t a more pressing or important issue that we’re dealing with as a society than police-community relations,” he told the Times.
Harmonious police-community relations are indeed a worthy goal, not just in and of themselves, but more so as a vehicle through which the quality of life can be improved for the people of Los Angeles. And in some parts of Los Angeles, the quality of life is affected by the grim reality that people tend to get shot more than they do in other parts of the city.
The Times informs us that Johnson and his wife are raising their four children in Sherman Oaks, a prosperous section of the San Fernando Valley. And good for them. Johnson, an entertainment lawyer, no doubt earns a nice living, and we shouldn’t begrudge him one cent of it. But if he is under the impression that the people living in the grittier parts of town are most concerned with being treated rudely by the police, I invite him to examine the latest crime statistics from South Los Angeles, which is about 15 miles away from Sherman Oaks as the crow flies but a universe away in almost every other respect.
South L.A. is patrolled by officers assigned to four separate police divisions: Southwest, Newton, 77th Street, and Southeast. As of Sept. 12, 99 of the city’s 201 reported murders this year have occurred in these four divisions. In Newton Division, where Ezell Ford lived and died, homicides have doubled, from 10 to 20, for the year to date. In 77th Street, homicides are up by a more modest 18 percent, but that area leads the city with 45 for the year (the area had 50 in all of 2014). In both Southeast and Southwest Divisions, homicides are down by more than 20 percent this year, but, as in the other two areas, the total number of shooting victims is up significantly, suggesting that the improved homicide numbers are the result of some fortunate combination of good medicine and bad marksmanship.
Violent crime is up 19 percent this year in Los Angeles, and LAPD officers are making fewer arrests overall. If these trends are to be reversed, the officers on the street must be assured that their split-second decisions will be evaluated fairly by people who are well informed on the situations cops must face. Matthew Johnson has a chance to restore the Police Commission’s credibility in the eyes of the city’s cops. But if he pursues an agenda of racial grievance, as his predecessor did and as his profile in the L.A. Times suggests he will, he can expect lots more bloodshed in South Los Angeles.