Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck at a news conference at LAPD headquarters. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Though the story has disappeared from the headlines, Los Angeles is still reeling from the murderous rampage of Christopher Dorner, the former police officer who killed four people and wounded three in his quest for vengeance after being fired from the force in 2009. The Los Angeles Police Department remains in full damage control mode following its wild manhunt; on March 14, the city announced it would pay $40,000 to two women who were delivering newspapers when their truck was sprayed with police bullets. Between Dorner’s rambling manifesto and the LAPD’s intemperate response, many city residents fear it is the return of an ugly LAPD from another age.
The LAPD is supposed to have cleaned up its act. It was nearly four years ago that Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck glided, noiselessly and stoically, into the post long occupied by “Super Cop” William Bratton. The man Beck was replacing, a former New York Police chief, had become widely revered for lifting the smutty LAPD from the gutters of public confidence following the Rodney King and Rampart scandals. No hoopla surrounded Beck’s appointment—and no one took him for a revolutionary— but during his tenure as LAPD Chief of Police, Beck has been lauded for transforming the LAPD and repairing its gravely tarnished reputation.
Upright, self-deprecating, and with a gentle face one can’t help but trust, Beck has strived to wear a uniform of a more honorable hue. Beck has committed to weeding out corruption and racism, increasing transparency and, most ambitiously, admitting when his police force makes a mistake.
So when a chilling surveillance video surfaced last August of a mother and nurse in her mid-30s being brutally slammed to the pavement during what should have been a routine traffic stop, Beck wasted no time trying to preserve whatever goodwill the LAPD had garnered.
Michelle Jordan was pulled over for a cellphone violation by two police officers. When she allegedly defied their commands to remain in her car, they responded by beating her, leaving her bloodied and bruised. The officers then exchanged a congratulatory fist bump. In response, Beck released a statement, vowing to “investigate this thoroughly and hold our officers accountable for their actions.” In the meantime, he demoted a captain and pulled the two officers from the field, assuaging enraged Angelenos and civil rights groups who feared that this incident was characteristic of an LAPD they believed to be long gone.
The beating of Michelle Jordan drew intense media coverage and attracted heightened scrutiny of the police department from an already skeptical public eye. Beck’s rapid response suggested the incident was an aberrant flare-up within an otherwise reformed department. His message was firm: abuses of power and the use of excessive, unwarranted force would not be tolerated within the Los Angeles Police Department
But as comforting as Beck’s words sounded, a closer look at other accusations of police brutality at the time rendered his message hollow. Just a few days prior to the Jordan incident, LAPD officers stopped a young black student named Ronald Weekley Jr. for skateboarding on the wrong side of the road. He allegedly refused to cooperate and was pinned to the ground by four officers who assaulted him with blows to the face while he was subdued and handcuffed. A bystander caught the beating on her cellphone camera, and one witness said she was screaming as she watched the officers beat him, saying, “I thought they were going to kill him.” Weekley’s attorney questions why he was detained in the first place and believes race was likely a driving factor in the officers’ use of excessive force.
Concerns that the LAPD is relapsing to its old, nasty habits—and that reforms at the top have not translated into change on the streets—have not been allayed by the suppression of crucial details in controversial cases, particularly after Beck promised transparency and accountability in investigations of police misconduct. Last year, Alecia Thomas died in LAPD custody after a violent arrest in which a policewoman kicked her in the groin after having trouble restraining her. Thomas died in the back of a patrol car that was fitted with a camera, but the LAPD did not release the surveillance footage. In a news release detailing the incident, the LAPD made no mention of the fact that the officer assaulted Thomas before forcing her into the car. In another incident last fall, LAPD officers found a suspect hiding under a vehicle, dragged him out by his ankles, and believing they saw a metallic object in his hands, shot him in the back, critically wounding him. The news release following the incident omitted the fact that the suspect was handcuffed and face down when they fired at him. No weapon was found on the suspect.
As per Chief Beck’s dictum, internal investigations have been launched for each of these incidents. Though the LAPD declined comment on these pending investigations, examining earlier investigations that have since been closed provides insight into how Chief Beck deals with officers who cross the line.
In 2011, Bruce Faraon was walking home from work when LAPD officers ran after him with their guns drawn for allegedly grabbing his waistband and having a surprised look on his face when they drove by, according to Faraon’s attorney and the police report. Faraon was restrained, beaten and even choked. He was charged for resisting arrest, a charge that was later dropped. The department’s investigation into the incident concluded that there was no improper conduct on the part of the officers involved. “Besides the letters that Mr. Faroan had received after the fact, I don’t believe there was any transparency in the investigation,” Joshua Piovia-Scott, Faraon’s attorney, told The Nation. “I definitely think the officers involved in this kind of conduct should be held accountable. The fact there was no disciplinary action taken against them that I know of just encourages officers to continue to engage in this type of vigilante activity.”
One late night in March 2010, two LAPD officers stopped a man named Steven Eugene Washington, who was walking alone, looking around and touching something near his waistband. When Washington didn’t immediately respond to their orders, the officers shot him in the head and killed him. Following a lengthy internal investigation, Police Chief Beck determined that while the police officers made grave mistakes, they were justified in using deadly force against Washington, who, it turned out, was autistic. Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger said in a news conference that the officers fired, “with the belief that he was arming himself, and in defense of their lives.” While Beck has sole disciplinary authority, in a surprising move the Police Commission rejected Beck’s recommendation and ruled that the officers were wrong to fatally shoot the man.
It was not the first time the LAPD had killed an autistic man. Two years before that, LAPD officer Joseph Cruz fired several fatal rounds at Mohammad Usman Chaudhry, when he allegedly pulled out a folding knife in a threatening way. Even Cruz’s partner said he never saw Chaudhry with a knife, yet an internal investigation cleared Cruz of any wrongdoing. Later, he was fired from the force for lies regarding an unrelated matter. In 2011, a federal jury rejected Cruz’s account of the shooting. Evidence used at trial included the knife in question, which was tested for DNA. The results did not match Chaudhry.
Such incidents go back further, toward the beginning of Beck’s tenure. In November 2009, an LAPD officer handcuffed Allen Harris, a partially paralyzed man, so tightly that he suffered nerve damage. The officer was not faulted for any wrongdoing. When the disabled man successfully sued the officer, Beck disagreed with the verdict and questioned the veracity of Harris’ claims. The next year, security footage captured an encounter between LAPD officers and college student Aibuidefe Oghogho. The confrontation resulted in two officers on top of Oghogho punching him repeatedly and beating him with a baton. They yelled at him to stop resisting arrest, even though he was already subdued, and one of the officers tasered him. The officers were deemed to have acted appropriately.
A 2010report by the CATO Institute found that Los Angeles had one of the highest concentrations of credible reports of police misconduct in the country. And in 2011, LAPD had a reported sixty-three officer-involved shooting incidents, a roughly 50 percent increase over the shootings in any of the previous four years. Belligerent officers’ using unwarranted deadly force is a serious concern the department still faces.
Taken together, the impunity enjoyed by the LAPD in incident after violent incident shows the inadequate nature of internal investigations. The question of meaningful oversight is “one of the hardest civil rights and civil liberties issues out there,” according to Peter Eliasberg, legal director at the Southern California chapter of the ACLU. “There have to be effective mechanisms of internal discipline and it is very hard to do that.” Recent cases of alleged police brutality raise legitimate questions about whether the LAPD’s strides are real. “My impression is that the chief says all the right things,” added Scott, Faraon’s attorney. “There may be incremental or glacial change, but the core root problems of these interactions between law enforcement and innocent civilians on the streets of Los Angeles have not been completely addressed, by any stretch of the imagination.”
The Dorner episode has brought back haunting memories of a darker police force. The LAPD may have a softer, more trustworthy face, but it still grapples with longstanding issues of racism, paranoia and egotism that have resulted in countless instances of brutality. In some cases, these confrontations have resulted in the tragic death of an innocent civilian at the hands of a uniformed LAPD officer. In his statement after the Michelle Jordan video surfaced, Chief Beck said, “Every Los Angeles police officer, regardless of rank, will be held accountable for their actions.” Perhaps now, more than ever, it is time for the chief to follow through on that promise.
Watch Ross Tuttle discuss the NYPD’s discriminatory use of stop-and-frisk.