On the LAPD 'Civilian Oversight' Board, the Untrained Criticize Police Work

Consider this hypothetical: Dr. Jones is the lead surgeon on a medical team composed of highly trained and experienced doctors, nurses, and technicians. One day an emergency surgery is required and the team is hastily assembled. Some members respond from hospitals and offices in various parts of the city while others come from their homes. But the team has trained together often and has handled many similar emergencies in the past, almost always with satisfactory outcomes. During this surgery the team confronts unexpected complications, and despite their best efforts the patient dies on the operating table.

Later, after an inquiry, a panel of “experts” overseeing the hospital issues a report finding fault with Dr. Jones and the members of his team, citing what they perceive to be the lapses in judgment that led to the patient’s death. Appearing before the panel, Dr. Jones speaks for his team. “May I ask,” he says, “where all of you experts attended medical school? And may I ask how many of these surgeries you’ve performed yourselves?”

“We’re not doctors,” say the experts.

“As I suspected,” says Dr. Jones. “And have you, by any chance, ever watched one of these surgeries performed?”

“Well, no,” say the experts, “but we’ve seen every episode of Grey’s Anatomy!”

This is absurd, of course. No one of sound mind would construct a system in which a doctor’s actions during surgery are judged by people with no medical training. Nor would you ask a layman to pass judgment on soldiers, pilots, firefighters, or anyone else whose profession requires experience and specialized knowledge to perform under stress.

Anyone else, that is, except a police officer. When it comes to police work, anyone and everyone can be an expert.

One hears so much about “civilian oversight” of police departments these days, with the argument being that absent the watchful eye of outsiders, police officers can become insular and detached from the communities they serve. Which may be true, as far as it goes, but this argument should be subjected to some questions: Which civilians should be entrusted with this responsibility, and what is to be expected of those so entrusted? (Do you want this guy, for example, overseeing your police department?) Isn’t it proper that a civilian overseer receive some minimum level of training in what a police officer’s job demands? And shouldn’t these overseers render their judgments based on real-world conditions rather than some idealized notion of what they think should have happened?

In Los Angeles, sadly, the answers to these questions are “no” and “no.”

On May 8 of last year, a woman living in the Sunland-Tujunga area of L.A. was awakened by the sound of an intruder in her home. She escaped through a bedroom window and phoned for police, and when patrol officers arrived they were able to look inside and see the burglar roaming the house. The woman had told officers she had three guns in the house, a pistol, rifle, and shotgun, with ammunition for all three, so the patrol officers surrounded the place and called for a SWAT team. Over the next few hours, SWAT officers attempted to negotiate with the suspect by telephone and through the use of a sound system on a police robot. Despite these efforts, the suspect refused to surrender and traded shots with officers in several separate exchanges.

The house where this occurred was at the end of a street atop a ridgeline, presenting the officers with several tactical challenges, not the least of which was a steep drop-off behind the house into a ravine full of heavy vegetation. Officers covering the rear had to do so from a great distance or else risk exposing themselves to the suspect’s gunfire. Because of this, and after the required approval from the LAPD chain of command, SWAT officers were deployed aboard a helicopter to ensure the suspect could not escape via the ravine and into the surrounding neighborhood. (Specially designated SWAT officers practice firing from a helicopter twice each month.)

During one exchange of gunfire, the suspect emerged from the house and fired at the helicopter, missing it before retreating under fire and back into the house. It’s worth noting that even after trading shots with the suspect, the officers never ceased in their efforts to have him surrender, both through attempted negotiations and the use of tear gas. Finally, after several hours of this, the suspect came out of a back door and was shot by several officers, including two aboard the helicopter. After being shot, he tumbled into the ravine where, after a difficult approach, officers found him dead.

Like all LAPD shootings, this one was exhaustively investigated by specially trained detectives, whose report was reviewed at various command levels within the LAPD. Siding with the majority opinion of the shooting-review board, Chief Charlie Beck determined the shooting to be within department policy, calling for no discipline for any of the involved officers.

In a just world, that would have been the end of the discussion. But this is not a just world, this is Los Angeles, whose police department is overseen by a panel of five political appointees chosen by a mayor who fancies himself as a presidential candidate. And, reflecting the mayor’s way of thinking, they are chosen not for any expertise they might bring to the position, but rather so as to reflect the city’s “diversity” as the term is today so often used, which is to say the commissioners are of various ethnicities and sexual preferences, but their political ideologies vary from left to far-left. It is these people who have the final word on whether a police shooting is within policy.

The investigation determined that in the incident’s last act, when the suspect emerged from the house for the final time, he was not in fact armed with the gun he had earlier used to shoot at the officers. What appeared to be a gun in his hand was the bunched-up end of the sleeve of his black sweatshirt, which he apparently had used to stanch the flow of blood from a wound to his hand. Because of this, the commission ruled (with one dissenting vote) that 12 police officers had violated policy by shooting at the suspect while he was unarmed.

I cannot overstate how ludicrous this decision is, nor can I overstate the danger it poses to officers who in the future might hesitate to shoot someone who has already fired at them but whose gun may not be visible at some later time. I have cited the U.S. Supreme Court case of Graham v. Connor often in previous columns, but it bears repeating that the case prescribes how any police use of force is to be judged, which is by the standard of a reasonable officer in similar circumstances. In ruling as they did, the majority of the police commission has substituted their judgment not only for that of the Supreme Court, but also for the LAPD’s chain of command and the 12 officers who performed their duties in, to borrow language from Graham, circumstances that were tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving. Those officers have an average of 20 years of police experience.

Despite the commission’s ruling (their report is here), it is unlikely any of the officers will face discipline. Though the commission is the titular head of the LAPD, it is the chief who imposes discipline. Having already pronounced the shooting to be within policy, Chief Beck has no reason to reverse himself now. He will retire next month and is thus liberated from any political motives; he has promised to adjudicate the matter before leaving his post.

And the madness isn’t confined to Los Angeles. Up in Seattle, a police officer finds himself in the unusual position of having ended a potentially deadly confrontation without injury to the suspect or anyone else, yet he faces the prospect of discipline for “failure to de-escalate.” After a man stole an ice ax from an REI store in Seattle, officers spotted him carrying it down the street. What followed was captured on one officer’s body-worn camera, but I can summarize it here by saying that they followed the man for several blocks before he reached an area where he was isolated from pedestrians and motorists, affording the officers the chance to act. The officers were able to grab and disarm the man without injuring him or themselves and without exposing anyone else to danger. Despite the satisfactory outcome, a police sergeant (and what a leader he must be) initiated a complaint against one of the officers, which now rests with Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability. The political atmosphere in Seattle is no less bizarre than that in Los Angeles, so I fear the officer will receive the two-day suspension that has been proposed.

Civilian oversight of police departments is fine in principle, but only if the overseers are themselves principled. When they lack the merest qualifications to pass judgment on a police officer’s decisions and conduct, they should be willing to admit it and not substitute their fantasies for real-world actions made by people trained to take them. The Los Angeles police commissioners, or at least those who voted in the majority in the case discussed above, are better qualified to head the police department in the Emerald City of Oz: They have no heart, no courage, and no brain.