The headline to a Sunday Los Angeles Times story is a muffled scream of disappointment, the lamentation of a child whom Santa Claus has too often disappointed: “If D.A. Jackie Lacey Won’t Charge the LAPD Officer Who Shot Brendon Glenn, Some Ask: When Would She Prosecute?”
The story ran under the bylines of three writers — Cindy Chang, Kate Mather, and Marisa Gerber — who collectively seem aghast that a now-former Los Angeles Police Department officer will not face prosecution for the May 2015 shooting death of a man in Venice, a beachside area on L.A.’s west side. “If there was ever a police shooting that would bring criminal charges against a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles,” the story begins, “the killing of Brendon Glenn near the Venice boardwalk looked like it could be the one.”
Chang, Mather, and Gerber continue:
The shooting was captured on video. Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck issued an unprecedented public call for the officer to be prosecuted. And the city paid out $4 million to Glenn’s family.
But nearly three years later, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey decided not to bring charges against Officer Clifford Proctor, marking a rare public clash between two of the L.A. area’s top law enforcement officials.
In keeping with the Times’s long-running motif, the racial angle is played. Brendon Glenn, we are told, “is the third fatal high-profile LAPD shooting in recent years involving a similar scenario.” They continue:
In the March 2015 shooting of Charly Keunang on Skid Row, prosecutors determined that Keunang wrapped his fingers around an officer’s gun as the officer yelled, “He’s going for my gun!” Ezell Ford was fatally shot in South Los Angeles after he allegedly knocked a police officer to the ground and grabbed the officer’s gun.
All three victims were unarmed black men.
The scarcely veiled implication is that the officers who confronted Glenn in Venice, like those who tangled with Keunang on Skid Row and Ford in South-Central L.A., share a common racial animus that spelled death for the three men, whom the writers at the Times believe would have been handled differently had they been white.
Inconveniently for the Times, the officer who shot Glenn was black.
To be fair to the Times and the three writers, the story does offer a hint at evenhandedness in that it presents the district attorney’s rationale for declining to file charges, which, summed up, is that the shooting officer reasonably believed the suspect was grabbing another officer’s weapon. And it quotes two police experts who concur with the DA’s decision. (The DA’s 83-page report is here.) But the overall tone of the article is one of sneering condescension, as if to ask, “How can anyone believe that?”
And indeed, they present a so-called expert who scoffs at this explanation. They quote Eric Miller, a professor at Loyola Law School. “In any arrest,” he says, “where a civilian engages in a physical response — arrests of drunk people, the mentally ill, irate civilians, any of these types of arrests — the officer just has to formulate or allege a belief that the victim is going for their gun, and they have a blanket justification for shooting that individual. I think that’s horrific.”
Other than Miller’s position, no evidence is offered on why the reader should give his opinions any weight at all. And, based on these quotes, they shouldn’t. As Professor Miller presumably knows, the U.S. Supreme Court established the criteria for evaluating a police officer’s use of force in Graham v. Connor (1989). The Court 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.” The question, said the Court, “is whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them.”
In other words, an officer may not simply claim, as Professor Miller alleges, that a suspect with whom he is fighting is going for his gun, thereby providing a “blanket justification” for shooting him. The officer’s belief must be objectively reasonable. In Professor Miller’s ideal world, a police officer would be forbidden from shooting someone trying to disarm him, a scenario equally as horrific as the one he so harshly — while uninformed — imagines.
In the Glenn shooting, security video captured the struggle, and Glenn’s hand can be seen on an officer’s leg in the area of his holstered pistol.
Whether or not Glenn was in fact trying to disarm the officer cannot be known, but it is immaterial to the district attorney’s evaluation of the criminal case against the shooting officer. A prosecutor is ethically bound to bring charges only in cases where he reasonably believes a jury would convict the defendant. When there is video of the deceased acting belligerently toward the officers and resisting their efforts to handcuff him, and where his hand can be seen near an officer’s weapon during the scuffle, any prosecutor can easily predict that a hung jury is the best outcome he can expect, with an acquittal even more likely. With that in mind, it would have been unethical to charge the former officer. (If only Baltimore’s Marilyn Mosby had adhered to this simple principle.)
The Times quotes another “expert” who was troubled by the DA’s decision, but, as in the case of Professor Martin, it fails to inform the reader of the legitimate reasons one may question his expertise. Robert Saltzman, a retired associate dean at USC Law School and former L.A. police commissioner, said the DA’s report “bends over backwards to find, and then rely on, speculative conclusions to exonerate the officer.” Saltzman’s former titles may, to the uninformed reader, confer on him a level of credibility that is unwarranted.
Yes, he served on the police commission, but the post is a political one for which no law enforcement expertise is required. The five members of the commission are appointed by the mayor and are selected not on the basis of any police-related experience they may have had, but rather for their utility in making the body appear “diverse,” as the term is today understood. During his tenure on the commission, it was Saltzman’s duty to fill the unofficial but well-recognized gay seat, from which he rendered judgments on matters about which he had no relevant knowledge.
But to the Times, it his resumé that counts. That, and the fact that he was eager to be quoted offering an opinion the writers and editors at the paper appear to share.
None of this is to say that the shooting of Brandon Glenn was clearly justifiable, only that it was not clearly unjustifiable, which is the standard the district attorney was obligated to observe. And as for the people at the Los Angeles Times, there’s always next Christmas.