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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.

Officer-involved excludedOfficer-involved only

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.

Ford’s death came just two days after that of Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.  Though the Ford shooting did not garner nearly the level of national media attention accorded to Michael Brown’s death, it inspired local protests and demands for the officers to be fired and prosecuted.  On May 18, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck announced that he had ruled the shooting to be “in policy,” i.e., that the officers deviated neither from the law or department guidelines.  Forensic evidence corroborated the officers’ account of the shooting, most significantly with the discovery of Ford’s DNA on the officer’s holster.

But the regulations governing the LAPD are such that the chief of police does not have the final word on whether a shooting is justified.  The Board of Police Commissioners, composed of five political appointees selected by the mayor, renders the final judgment, and on June 9 the commissioners ruled -- incongruously, in my opinion -- that one of the officers was justified in shooting Ford while the other was not (PDF).  The commissioners’ rationale for finding as they did can be summarized by saying they felt that the first officer, the one whose gun was nearly taken from him, had no justification for stopping Ford in the first place, and that the altercation that followed should not have occurred.  The second officer was found to have acted properly in that he responded to his partner’s shouts that Ford was gaining control of the first officer’s weapon and shot Ford to save his partner’s life.  As I said, incongruous.

The commission’s decision leaves many in the LAPD shaking their heads.  How can it be, cops wonder, that one officer’s actions were found faulty while the other’s were not?  And for that matter, how can the commission find fault with either officer when they were engaged in what was, up to a point, a routine contact that suddenly went awry?  The commission based its conclusion on a recent case heard in both the California Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  That case, Hayes v. County of San Diego, held that police officers may be held liable for their use of deadly force if they are found to have acted negligently and the deadly force was a result of that negligence.  (The case arose from an incident in which sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a suicidal man who was approaching them with a knife.  The California Supreme Court’s opinion can be read here; the Ninth Circuit’s is here.)

But in this, the commission erred.  The Hayes case involved an allegation of negligence on the part of the involved deputies.  No one has claimed either of the officers who shot Ezell Ford was negligent, though the commission infers negligence on their part by ruling that there was no justification for stopping Ford in the first place.  This is a dubious proposition at best.  Ford was on a street known for its crime and gang activity and was seen in the immediate vicinity of gang members.  As officers approached he appeared to note their presence and made furtive movements with his hands while accelerating his pace, then stopped and bent down as if to discard something he carried his pocket.  From such a set of facts as this have thousands of successful prosecutions arisen, in Los Angeles and in every other city where gangs can be found.   And as for shooting him, the Supreme Court case governing police use of deadly force is Graham v. Connor, which held that, “[t]he ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”  Civil litigation is sure to follow, and activists are demanding that the officers be prosecuted, but there is no chance -- none -- that any court will find that either of the officers acted unlawfully, and no one with even the slightest experience in criminal law, save for the most liberal of attorneys and judges, would claim that in trying to detain Ford the officers -- both of them -- were anything but well within the guidelines established by Terry v. Ohio and the subsequent cases flowing from it.

Alas, there is no one with experience in criminal law on the Los Angeles Police Commission.  Its members are selected not for their expertise in the matters that come before them but rather for their connections to the mayor and for their ability to fulfill the requirements of today’s diversity mongers.  Thus the commission is composed of three women (one black, one Asian, and one Hispanic) and two white males (one of them gay).

In an appearance she should regret (but probably does not), Commission Vice President Paula Madison appeared on the local NBC affiliate Sunday morning and attempted to explain the commission’s ruling to host Conan Nolan.  “First of all,” she said, “we have to establish that the law is a living, breathing institution.  If you go back a hundred years, slavery was legal.  If you go back to the beginning of the 20th Century, women were not allowed to vote.  It’s a very different world today.”

Whenever someone leads off with nonsense about the law being a “living, breathing institution,” then follows it up with references slavery and to pre-19th-Amendment America, it’s generally safe to discount anything she might say thereafter.  The fact that Madison seems to believe the Civil War ended fifty years later than it did does not inspire confidence.  And while we may allow that Madison was making a rhetorical point and not a historical one, even as rhetoric the point is incoherent.  Furthermore, as I explain above, her reliance on an obscure case from the California Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit rather than on the clearly established guidelines set forth in Terry v. Ohio and Graham v. Connor reveals a level of ignorance that should disturb anyone looking to the Police Commission for guidance on how officers should conduct themselves in the field.

And it got worse.  Asked by the host if the commission’s decision would change the nature of policing in Los Angeles, Madison said this: “So many things have changed the nature of policing, period.  I mean, you might not be aware of this, but there was a time in this country when police officers were used to capture escaped slaves.”  If the earlier reference to slavery didn’t make it clear enough, Madison harbors an apparent belief that the officers who shot Ezell Ford were engaged in a form of repression not far removed from that practiced by police officers more than 150 years ago.

If you need more proof of Madison’s naked agenda, the Los Angeles Times story on the commission’s decision was accompanied by a video that showed just a bit of the carnival atmosphere at the June 9 meeting at which they announced their findings (the entire meeting can be viewed here).  The public comments were dominated by angry activists, some from the Black Lives Matter movement, people who are so deluded as to believe the map above with nine dots represents a graver problem than the one with 237.  Some of the speakers were so disruptive as to cause the commissioners to leave the room.  After the meeting, Madison stepped down from the dais and addressed them.  “I’m going to ask,” she said, “that the energy that you all have, and the passion that you all have, I’m not saying let it dissipate, but I am saying, consider that you might not need to walk out of here in great anger.  What you were looking for, you got.”  All she left out was the wink.

On Sunday morning, Conan Nolan asked Madison if she and her fellow commissioners had buckled to pressure from anti-police groups in reaching their conclusions about the Ford shooting.  “There was no buckling,” she said.  And in this Madison was speaking the truth, though not in the sense she intended.  One need not buckle to the mob when one is herself a member of it.

But the mob may yet find themselves unsatisfied.  Yes, the Police Commission has the final word on the propriety of a use of force, but the police chief has the last word on officer discipline, and as noted above, Chief Beck has already determined that both officers involved in the Ford shooting acted within the law and department policy.  This sets up a confrontation between Beck and his titular bosses, though it is one in which Beck has little to lose by tweaking the commissioners’ noses.  He is already serving what must by law be his final term as chief, so whatever opinion the commission may come to have of him is all but irrelevant to his future prospects.  If he bows to the commission and punishes the officer, he will be seen as weak by those he seeks to lead, who will respond as any organization does to poor leadership.  But if he gives the officer a pass, the commission may retaliate by making decisions detrimental to the department.  Either scenario will be harmful to the city.

And now what?  It requires no great feat of prognostication to predict that, regardless of what Chief Beck decides, LAPD officers will react to the Police Commission’s ruling by being more circumspect in their enforcement efforts.  Considerations of law and tactics will be replaced by those of politics, with the result being officers who will be satisfied to take a report when someone is shot and put up yellow tape around the dead bodies, but not to pursue those responsible for the crimes for fear of risking a violent confrontation that will be judged by people lacking even the vaguest notion about how police work should be conducted.  In the Newton Division, where Ezell Ford was killed, violent crime is already up 35 percent for the year, with homicides up 42 percent and shooting incidents up 93 percent.  Violent crime is up in the other areas of South Los Angeles as well, as it is throughout the city (though not yet by as much).  With the city’s gang members emboldened by the commission’s ruling and its police officers demoralized, we can expect Los Angeles to see a violent summer.

More from Jack Dunphy:

The One Key Lesson Baltimore Cops Didn’t Learn from the L.A. Riots