L.A.’s Long Hot Summer of Racial Violence Is Brewing
Consider the maps found below, which are drawn from the Homicide Report, an online feature of the Los Angeles Times. The dots on these maps represent homicide victims killed in the Florence neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles between 2000 and today. The first map, containing 237 dots representing 237 dead people, excludes those killed by police. The second map, with nine dots, shows only those killed by police. One of the dots in this second map represents Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old black man who was shot and killed by Los Angeles Police Department officers last summer. A ruling by the Los Angeles Police Commission last week all but assures that in the future there will be fewer dots on the second map but many, many more on the first.
I’ll explain. On August 11, 2014, at just after eight in the evening, two LAPD officers assigned to the gang detail at Newton Division were driving west on 65th Street between Main Street and Broadway. You can do the same thing yourself, in a virtual sense, by clicking here, which will take you to a Google Street View image of 65th Street looking west from Main Street. You’ll note that on first inspection there is nothing at all to indicate an air of menace on the block. The wall to the right is free of graffiti (though that’s not always the case), and as you continue to head west toward Broadway you’ll see that for the most part the homes and yards appear to be well tended. You’ll also see that one such house, a 3-bedroom, 1.5-bath bungalow at 204 West 65th Street, is for sale. And if all you knew about the block was what you could glean from this virtual tour, you might think the little house was a worthwhile investment, as indeed someone did -- it sold in January of this year for $295,000.
But if you continue on your Google tour, four houses to the west you’ll come upon a reason that new homeowner might now suffer from buyer’s remorse. There you will see gathered in front of 220 West 65th a group of young men, all of whom appear to have developed a case of camera-shyness at the approach of the Google-mobile. None of the young men is identifiable in the image, but I would bet my next paycheck, indeed my next ten paychecks, that they are members of a street gang known as the 66 East Coast Crips, which is responsible for much of the crime in the neighborhood. (The Los Angeles Times places the Florence neighborhood at No. 13 out of 270 L.A. County neighborhoods when measured for crime.)
It was a similar gathering of young men that the two LAPD officers observed last August 11. As I said, the officers were assigned to the gang detail, whose job it is to keep gangsters in check so as to minimize their predations on their neighbors. As the officers drove slowly by, they looked for any outward sign of criminal activity, anything that would demand their attention and investigation. Seeing none, the officers continued on their way. On some other occasion they might have stopped and talked to the men, but on this night they were satisfied merely to make their presence known by driving past.
But then, just to the west, they saw another young man walking toward Broadway. This was Ezell Ford. Had he been a part of the group? The officers didn’t know. Did he have a gun or some drugs? Or was he perhaps a decoy, the one who breaks from the group while possessing no contraband, but whose job it is to distract police from those holding the guns and drugs? The officers considered all these possibilities as they stopped their car with the aim of speaking to him.
As things stood at that moment, the officers lacked the reasonable suspicion necessary to detain Ford as required by Terry v. Ohio, but they were sufficiently curious about him that they decided to talk to him. Even without reasonable suspicion, the officers were free to approach Ford and speak to him, as would anyone be free to approach anyone else on the street and strike up a conversation. This they did. But as they left their car, the officers could see Ford look at them and then move his hands to his pockets, which the officers believed may have indicated he had a gun or drugs. Ford continued walking west on the sidewalk, faster now, but looked back at the approaching officers as he did so.
One of the officers, the first to approach him, asked Ford to take his hands out of his pockets, which Ford declined to do. Ford continued walking, now at an even faster pace, then ducked into the space between a bush and a car parked in a driveway (the location can be seen here). The officers now believed that Ford had drugs, though the possibility that he had a gun could not be completely discounted.
It’s important to note here that up to this point the encounter between Ford and the officers was indistinguishable from many police contacts that occur daily in any city you could name. Police officers see a man whose behavior is not immediately recognizable as criminal, but who nonetheless arouses professional curiosity. The officers approach to speak to the man, who then behaves as if concealing contraband, which turns the contact from one that would have been a consensual encounter into an investigative detention supported by reasonable suspicion.
Ford bent down slightly, his back to the officers as he stood between the car and the bush. As the first officer approached him, Ford spun around and attempted to tackle the officer. Both Ford and the officer fell to the ground, and in less time than it will take you to read this paragraph, Ford and this first officer engaged in a violent struggle for control of the officer’s holstered pistol. The officer shouted to his partner that Ford was taking his gun, at which time the second officer shot Ford in the right arm to no apparent effect. Ford continued his attempt to take the first officer’s pistol, leading that officer to implore his partner to shoot Ford again. The second officer did so, and the first officer, while trying to control his pistol with his right hand, drew a backup weapon with his left, reached around Ford and shot him in the back. Ford was taken to a hospital but died during treatment about two hours later. No weapons or drugs were found.