What To Make Of The Past Week's Spike in LAPD Shootings?

(Andrew Cullen for LAist)

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The unusual string of six LAPD shootings over an eight-day period that began March 16 has sparked sharply different reactions.

For police watchdogs, the spike is more evidence officers too often use deadly force.

"[LAPD Chief Michel] Moore is enabling his officers to just run amok in our communities," Black Lives Matter leader Melina Abdullah told us.

"I understand there's going to be that impression that LAPD as a whole might be trigger happy," said Ed Obayashi, a nationally recognized use of force expert and Plumas County deputy sheriff. "But I don't make much of [the cluster of shootings] at all."

For his part, Moore acknowledges the cluster is "striking," but he told the Police Commission this week that the shootings are unrelated and will be investigated separately.

DESPITE A DIP IN SHOOTINGS, CONTROVERSY

The recent spate brings the number of LAPD shootings this year to 10. Over the past two years there were 27 and 26 shootings, respectively, the fewest in 30 years,

Despite the dip in shootings, activists have been angered by a number of controversial incidents caught on video, including two last April: the fatal shooting of a man carrying a box cutter near downtown and the beating of a homeless man in Boyle Heights.

Some critics also see any LAPD use of force through the lens of the department's checkered past and its more recent widespread use of force against protesters last summer. The city faces a class action lawsuit that claims officers used excessive force, including firing hard foam projectiles at peaceful protesters.

In the shootings of the past week, each officer reacted to a particular set of circumstances, said Obayashi, arguing that it would be wrong to evaluate the shootings as a group. "They stand on their own," he said.

The shootings would be connected if the department were failing to provide officers with the right training for de-escalation and use of force. Moore told the Police Commission the reason shootings have dropped is because of improved de-escalation training and greater use of less-than-lethal weapons.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE SHOOTINGS

So far the only information available about the shootings comes from the LAPD, and as yet it has not offered much. It's often initially stingy with details when an officer uses deadly force. (State law now requires the release of body cam video within 45 days of a major use of force incident, unless an agency can demonstrate doing so would "substantially interfere" with an investigation.)

We've divided the incidents into two groups - those that involved people with guns and those that involved people with other weapons. Here's what the LAPD has said about each one:

INCIDENTS INVOLVING GUNS:

  • On March 16 around 4:40 p.m. Southwest Area officers responded to a call of a suspect barricaded in a home in South L.A. who had fired a gun. SWAT responded, along with a crisis negotiation team. During the incident, the suspect emerged from the home and opened fire, wounding a SWAT officer. Officers returned fire, killing the suspect. Police recovered a loaded shotgun and pistol at the scene.
  • On March 19 around 7:00 p.m., Hollenbeck Area officers conducted a traffic stop. As officers approached the vehicle, the driver backed his vehicle towards officers and sped away, leading them on a short pursuit until he crashed into a home in Boyle Heights. The suspect exited his vehicle with a handgun, at which point officers opened fire, wounding him. Police recovered a handgun at the scene.
  • On March 23 outside the LAPD's Olympic Station on the edge of Koreatown, two officers came out to check on a man who was banging on the door. The man had a handgun, and one of the officers shot and wounded him.

In those last two incidents, the department has not said where the guns were or what the suspects were doing with them when officers opened fire. Those details are often a huge area of contention. Cops say the presence of a gun is enough to shoot. Critics strongly disagree.

There was a shooting involving an off-duty lieutenant that's worth separating out from the others because of its unusual nature.

  • On March 17 around 12:15 p.m. an off-duty LAPD lieutenant was sitting in his private vehicle in the Hollenbeck Area when he said he witnessed a drive-by shooting of a man on the sidewalk, according to Moore. As the car drove past him, the lieutenant believed the passenger who had just shot and wounded the man on the sidewalk was turning in his direction, so he opened fire, the chief said. Police don't believe the lieutenant struck anyone in the car, which got away.

INCIDENTS INVOLVING OTHER WEAPONS:

  • On March 16 around 5:20 p.m., Southeast Area officers were called to a home where a man with a knife was trying to force his way into a victim's room. Officers shot the man with a 40-millimeter foam projectile, but he still forced his way into the room and started "slashing" at the victim, according to Moore, who said that's when officers opened fire, wounding the man.
  • On March 19 around 3:40 p.m., a Rampart Area sergeant was flagged down by a community member who had seen a man walking around with a hammer and "a piece of metal resembling an ice ax," according to Moore. The man threw the hammer at the officers and raised the other weapon above his head as if he was going to throw it as well when he was shot and killed.

"Any use of force by the police could be possibly legitimate," said Cliff Smith of the Coalition for Community Control Over the Police. "But we know of many instances with the police department, with the Sheriff's Department, where they're not legitimate."

He pointed to the troubled history of police in Los Angeles. Smith renewed calls he and other critics have made for an outside agency to investigate LAPD shootings - rather than the LAPD itself.

Moore maintains this is not the LAPD of old. A department statement sought to remind people of that.

"Reverence for human life is the guiding principle in the Department's use of force policy. De-escalation, the use of alternatives, and utilizing time remain of critical importance."

Each shooting is investigated by the department's Force Investigation Division and its Professional Standards Bureau. The district attorney will review it for any potential criminal wrongdoing on the part of the officers. In addition, the Inspector General will weigh in and the Police Commission will determine if the shooting was in policy. Ultimately, the chief and a Board of Rights will determine whether any officers should face discipline.