Monday, May 25, 2009

The LAPD Got a Handle on Deadly Force, now it’s Inglewood’s Turn

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

There were cheers and a bold cautionary note for Inglewood police officials, indeed all police officials, in the Harvard Study on the LAPD. The cheers were that the LAPD has done a near 180 degree turn in going from the national poster department for police abuse, brutality and corruption to a fine tuned, well-oiled, crime fighting department and most importantly a department that has done it by respecting civil rights and not abusing minorities.
The abuse part is the key to the LAPD’s image swap. That’s abuse that translates out to the wildly excessive overuse of physical and especially deadly force. The Harvard study found that in the past five years the most serious uses of force by the LAPD- shootings, carotid artery control holds or head strikes with impact weapons – plunged 30 percent. It also found that the incidence of physical force against blacks and Latinos plummeted far more than the force used against whites. The painful explanation for this is that the LAPD officers used much more force against blacks and Latinos in the first place, so the room for improvement here was much greater.

Getting the handle on the use of force is the single biggest reason why more blacks and Latinos in the city said that the LAPD has marched closer than ever to being the kinder, gentler department that it has long boasted that it wants to be. It accomplished the fete through solid, proactive political and department leadership, governance and most importantly independent monitoring, oversight, accountability and transparency. The stated goal is absolute zero tolerance for corruption, abuse, and especially the misuse of physical and deadly force. When cops behaved badly they were investigated and punished.
Now here’s the cautionary note in the Harvard study; a note that the LAPD, Inglewood, and other police officials must take note of. Physical and deadly force far from being a distant memory is still used in far too many instances, and many of those instances are questionable, and blacks and Latinos are more likely than not to be on the receiving end of that physical force. Researchers flatly chided the department for using force in what it called routine enforcement situations. The unmistakable message is that far too many persons are getting roughed up when cops make stops and arrests than may be warranted. That’s been painfully true in the two year surge in Inglewood police shootings.
Questionable cop shootings and their often pro forma stamp investigations stir turmoil and unrest, and deepen the distrust and cynicism of blacks and minorities toward the police. They reinforce the deep seated belief that cops are only out to cover up their dirt and that the lives of minorities are cheap. The multiple officer involved killings in Inglewood have stirred the same rage, frustration, and mistrust. The shootings have done much to make a small city police department the new national poster department for police violence.

Though Inglewood police officials hotly deny that their investigation will be a whitewash, few believe that. The disbelief has nothing to do with the heat, passion and fury over the shootings. It has everything to do with the history of cops investigating other cops who are alleged to have committed or actually are guilty of misconduct, and especially misconduct that involves the overuse of deadly force. These investigations rely heavily on often tightly orchestrated statements, or carefully scripted reports from the officer or officers about the incident, cursory review of citizen complaints, forensic evidence and a crime scene reenactment that’s heavily weighted to support the under fire officer’s version of the incident. Meanwhile, the statements and testimony from witnesses that contradict the officer’s version of the incident are often treated with skepticism, disbelief or are outright dismissed.
Often police officials tip their hand and publicly declare even before the first scrap of evidence is gathered that the shooting or physical confrontation was probably justified. The result of police investigating themselves is virtually preordained. The accused officer is almost always exonerated. If the officer kills or maims the shooting is almost always ruled in policy.

But the stain of these investigations is not totally scrubbed away when an officer skips off scot free. There are the grieving families, the inevitable and costly lawsuits, and increase in public ill-will toward the police.
This was the LAPD’s crushing burden for years precisely because so many cops got away with wrongdoing. Inglewood police and city officials can avoid shouldering that same burden by doing exactly what the Harvard study showed the LAPD has tried, and to a halting degree succeeded in doing, and that’s to get a firm handle on the use of deadly force.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles at 9:30 AM Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Killing of Marcus Smith

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

In the past year, the Inglewood police department has been hit with a federal probe, a grueling investigation by the Office of Independent Review, probes by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, the implementation of intense and lengthy new training and retraining procedures for Inglewood officers, a vigilant and proactive police commission review, and an internal affairs investigation of officer involved shootings. Yet Marcus Smith, a thirty one year old African American, was still gunned down by an Inglewood police officer. Smith is the fifth to be killed by police gunfire in the past two years.

The Smith killing as in several of the others ignited shock, frustration and rage. The killing of Smith also evoked painful memories of the gunning down by NYPD officers of Sean Bell in 2007. Smith, as Bell was a would-be bride groom, and the shooting took place after a family party; a party that Smith and his bride attended. There is no indication that Smith, as Bell, was involved in any gang or criminal involvement.

Inglewood police officials say they recovered a gun at the scene. But that only raises more thorny and disturbing questions. Did the officers issue a warning or command to Smith before opening fire?

That in turn raises even more questions. Was the gun Smith’s? If so, did he point the gun at the officers, or make any threatening move or gesture that led officers to believe that their lives were in jeopardy? Did eyewitnesses corroborate the officers version of the shooting, namely that Smith had a gun and menaced the officers? The answers are murky and blurred on the first two questions. But there’s nothing vague in the answer to the third question regarding the eyewitness corroboration of the officer’s account of the killing. All the witnesses give a wildly different version of the shooting than that of the police. They say that Smith did not have a gun, that the officers gave no warning or command, and that Smith was not given immediate medical help after he was shot. They also claim that they were beaten, verbally abused, and subject to arrest for protesting the killing.

This is not simply another instance of he said, she said when it comes to the bleary details of controversial police killings. The single most important policy directive that a police department can, no must have, is the directive on the use of deadly force by officers. Vague, or poorly written directives, or worse directives that are not bolstered with officer training, retraining, and discipline for violation of the deadly force directive is the single biggest thing that gets police departments in hot water with outside investigating agencies, stirs community anger and unrest, and results in crushing mega dollar wrongful death lawsuits and settlements that city officials must shell out. This is even more problematic in the Smith killing when it was revealed that the officer who shot Smith has also been involved in another shooting.

Nearly two decades ago, the Christopher Commission investigated the Rodney King beating. It made sweeping and landmark recommendations on LAPD reform. The most disturbing and explosive part of its report was the fingering of “problem” officers. These were officers who were involved in multiple shootings, acts of violence, and had mountains of citizen complaints lodged against them. The Commission made it clear that these officers had created a toxic environment within the LAPD. The environment was made worse by higher ups. LAPD brass had a cavalier wink and nod attitude toward their dubious conduct.

The failure to reprimand, discipline, and where warranted fire them caused huge headaches for the department. This is an especially crucial and sensitive point for in nearly all officer involved shootings, even the most questionable ones, and even where officers are found to have used excessive force, the punishment has often been minimal or totally lacking. This reinforces the deep suspicion that police officials look for ways to exonerate officers rather than to hold them accountable for violating department policies and procedures. This in turn feeds the fear and distrust that many African-Americans and Latinos have toward the police.

There are more questions that Inglewood officials must ask and answer about the Smith killing. And it’s important that accurate answers be given especially since Inglewood police have been hammered in past years for incidents involving excessive force and charges of misconduct. The memories of the videotape beating of Donovan Jackson in 2002 that shocked the nation are still fresh in the minds.

Now there’s the Smith killing. This is another one that won’t go away and again will sorely test whether the Inglewood police department and indeed Inglewood city officials have truly come to grips with the chronic problem of deadly force by its officers.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard on weekly in Los Angeles at 9:30 AM Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and live streamed nationally on

Hutchinson will have the family of Marcus Smith and invited Inglewood police and city officials on “The Hutchinson Report” on Friday May 22 at 9:30 AM