LOS ANGELES — The Police Commission April 18 unanimously approved a revision of the Los Angeles Police Department’s use of force policy despite public opposition and after rejecting a motion to continue revisions of the policy.
The policy is a set of guidelines that on-duty officers must follow to avoid the use of excessive and potentially deadly force during police stops.
The 10-year Overview of Categorical Use of Force Investigations, Policy and Training report drafted in March 2016 suggested 12 changes that the Police Department could enact in a new use of force policy.
Those changes were made to include “the need to control an incident by using time, distance, communications and available resources, in an effort to de-escalate the situation, whenever it is safe and reasonable to do so,” according to a report prepared for the commission by Police Chief Charlie Beck.
Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill raised concerns about the policy’s lack of descriptive language referencing tactics of de-escalation.
“I’m trying to make sure that de-escalation is not just alluded to but specifically required,” McClain-Hill said. “So it troubles me that nowhere, as it relates to the list of items that you’ve enumerated, is de-escalation identified.”
Her concerns stemmed from a letter the board received by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California that pointed to the language ambiguities of the policy.
Adrienna Wong, an attorney with the ACLU, spoke to the board and urged the commission to look at the policy revision “in context and not in a vacuum.” She stated that the policy, which limits the de-escalation language to the preamble of the policy, is different from all other police department policies that include de-escalation in their protocol.
“[This use of force policy] is different than the consensus model use of force policy put together by the International Association of Chiefs of Police,” Wong said. “The Police Department is saying that it makes no practical difference, and I think that begs the question: Why not do what is being recommended by the [Office of the Inspector General]? Why not do what everyone else is doing? Unless there’s something that we’re trying to avoid. We hope that the thing that is not being avoided is accountability for officers that do not actually attempt de-escalation.”
Wong added that a major concern is that the policy doesn’t include language identifying when deadly force can be used — language that existed prior to 2009. Its removal gave officers more authority to use deadly force in more situations, according to an Office of the Inspector General report.
Beck voiced support for the policy change, which he said was negotiated with the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing rank-and-file officers. Union leaders had voiced concern over the changes when they were first brought forward.
“I think not only is this a good policy that is well thought-out that will make changes in our use of force in practice and in training, but I think it’s also a model for collaboration,” Beck said.
“This is a very difficult subject that has a number of stakeholders with very strong opinions. And for all of us to be able to come together and to work through this and to take the time to make something that the union agrees with, the commission agrees with and the department’s management agrees with is a significant step forward,” the chief said in a written report.
The revision proposal drew opposition from community members and groups. They argued that the commission and police department need to consider public input when drafting policies and that officers be held accountable for unjustifiable use of force.
The Stop Los Angeles Police Department Spying Coalition, the Los Angeles Community Action Network and Black Lives Matter were among the groups that challenged the modifications of the policy.
“If we don’t look at the totality of how policing operates, the structures and the programs that lead to people’s deaths, [that] lead to the bullet hitting the body, then we’re not getting anywhere,” Jaime Garcia from the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition said. “Changing the language will do nothing, and I know that Cynthia McClain, you feel that will actually produce some kind of change and how these people with guns operate, but we know it won’t.”
The grandmother of Keith Bursey, a black man who was killed by police officers in South L.A. last June, stood in front of the commission and recounted the details that lead up to Bursey’s death.
“He was not a threat, he didn’t have a weapon on him, yet this officer refused to use anything but excessive deadly force,” she said.
She added that protecting police officers should not come at the expense of holding those who acted unreasonably accountable.
Members of the public chanted “Say his name: Keith Bursey” after her speech.
Police accounts of the Bursey shooting said he was armed when he was shot.
McClain-Hill made a motion that the department and the inspector general continue to review and revise the use of force policy to include explicit language that defines methods of de-escalation. She received no support from the rest of the commission.