Policing Los Angeles: The Forces At Work And The Scope Of Their Power

Published Aug 7, 2020


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The sight of an officer holding his knee on George Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes until he died from asphyxiation triggered nationwide protests that began in May, continued through June, and are still happening.

L.A. was one of the epicenters of the reawakened Black Lives Matter movement, with daily protests across the city, county, and surrounding areas.

It's not the first time there's been national outrage about a Black American being killed by police (see: Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, the list goes on).

But, it is the first time that the talk of police reform has moved beyond incremental steps to include widespread, mainstream discussions about foundational change.

Instead of the conversations being about use-of-force limitations, they've been about ideas once considered unattainable -- like defunding police departments, increasing civilian oversight, and ending qualified immunity for officers.

Also, the talk of reform isn't limited to police and sheriff's departments this time.

Activists seeking dramatic change in L.A.'s district attorney's office, probation department, and jail system are seeing increased awareness and amplification about broader criminal justice issues -- as well as increased pressure on public officials.

These are complicated issues, and achieving criminal justice reform won't be easy. In this guide, we'll break down some of the forces at work, explain how policing in L.A. functions, and arm you with the tools and facts to make your own informed decisions.

Police officers on bicycles ride past the Los Angeles Police Department Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A. (Andrew Cullen for LAist)

- THE SCOPE -

The first thing to know: there's a lot to learn about the many, many law enforcement agencies operating in L.A. County.

There's LAPD and LASD, but also scores of smaller police departments.

Long Beach, Santa Monica, Inglewood, and Pasadena are among the cities that have their own police agencies.

Cal State University schools have their own. Also UCLA.

And then there's the CHP, FBI, DEA, and ATF.

Plus, the federal Department of Justice has women and men with badges and guns stationed around L.A.

- THE BASICS ON THE BIG ONES -

1. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)

Chief Michel Moore
9,988 officers
2,961 civilian workers
Budget: Approximately $3.1 billion ($1.8 billion operating budget; $1.3 billion for pensions and other benefits)

The LAPD is responsible for patrolling the city of Los Angeles and most Metro trains and buses.

2. The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD)

Sheriff Alex Villanueva
10,000+ deputies
8,000+ civilian workers
Budget: Approximately $3.5 billion

Note: We had to fill out a public records request for an exact headcount on deputies and civilian staff and have not yet received a response. The above approximations come from L.A. County's website.

The LASD is responsible for patrolling all unincorporated areas of L.A. County.

Some of those areas have large populations, like East L.A. (pop: 125,000) and Altadena (pop: 44,000). Some have tiny populations, like Castaic and Catalina Island.

The Sheriff's Department also patrols 42 cities that don't have their own police departments, including Compton, Lynwood, Malibu, West Hollywood, Lancaster, and Palmdale. Here's the full list of contract cities.

The department patrols parks, community colleges, and county buildings as well, and provides bailiffs for the courts.

But if you only remember one thing, make it this: the L.A. Sheriff's Department runs the jails.

An entryway into Central Juvenile Hall, which houses both boys and girls. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

- THE JAILS -

L.A. has the largest local jail system in the country. Just a few months ago, it held about 17,000 inmates. Now it holds fewer than 12,000 because of early releases, fewer arrests, and a temporary zero-bail policy that had police citing and releasing low-level offenders.

All of these moves were designed to create more space for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Prison reform activists praised these reforms as a good start -- but they also filed a lawsuit arguing they weren't enough.

Activists are lobbying to lower the population further by extending zero bail, releasing people awaiting trial, and transferring mentally-ill inmates to community care facilities.

L.A. jails have long been a battleground for criminal justice reform. Lawsuits dating back to the 1970s described inhumane conditions, inmate abuse, and inadequate care for the mentally ill.

In 2012, a blue ribbon panel issued a scathing report that found a "persistent pattern of unreasonable force" by Sheriff's deputies on inmates. The report said the problem "dates back many years" and placed the blame on then-Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Both were later convicted by a federal jury for trying to cover up those abuses. And both are now serving time in prison.

Former Sheriff Lee Baca. (David McNew/Getty Images)

In 2019, the county agreed to pay $53 million to thousands of former inmates at the women's jail in South L.A. who were forced to endure "highly invasive visual and body cavity searches under inhumane conditions" by deputies between 2008 and 2015. The vast majority of these women were Black and Latina. It was one of the largest payouts in county history.

The jails remain under an August 2015 settlement between the county and U.S. Department of Justice that requires a wide range of reforms, from reduced use of force against inmates to improved mental health care.

To comply with the agreement, the county agreed to install hundreds of cameras inside the jails as a deterrent to excessive use of force. The county also created the Correctional Health Services division to focus on providing better care to inmates. Revised training of deputies has resulted in a reduction of serious use of force claims against inmates.

However, the federal monitor hired to oversee implementation of reforms has said in various reports that mentally ill inmates continue to suffer because of inadequate therapy and other services.

Advocates argue that people with serious mental health conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, extreme depression, or brief psychotic disorders only get worse behind bars and don't belong there in the first place.

One report found more than half of all inmates with mental health issues do not need to be in jail.

Advocates also point out that many inmates with mental health conditions are homeless and that they only committed quality of life crimes. Those are crimes that don't have a specific victim, but could affect the quality of life in a neighborhood -- like drinking in public, public urination, and "disorderly conduct."

For many advocates, getting mentally ill and homeless people out of the jails is a key component of creating a fairer and more humane criminal justice system.

Many law enforcement leaders, on the other hand, argue that homeless and mentally ill people present a danger to themselves and/or others. They also point out that L.A. doesn't yet have enough community care facilities to safely house everyone who is experiencing mental illness or is homeless.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has gone further, calling jail reforms a "failed social experiment."

One final point on the jails, and it's a big one:

In February 2019, the county Board of Supervisors took the extraordinary step of canceling plans to replace the aging downtown Men's Central Jail with a new facility.

Instead, the board voted to build a mental health care facility -- or possibly a series of clinics around the county. To sort out how that might work, the board created an Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group that's dominated by health care professionals and acivitists, not sheriff's officials.

It was a huge breakthrough for reformers -- unfathomable almost up until the moment it happened.

The work group's report -- "Care First, Jails Last" -- prioritized five efforts:

  1. Expand and scale up community-based care
  2. Ensure people experiencing mental health and/or substance abuse disorders get appropriate mental-health responses, rather than law enforcement
  3. Implement release and diversion services for people awaiting trial (so they don't have to languish in jail if they can't make bail)
  4. Provide effective treatment services in non-custody settings
  5. Continue to involve people with lived experiences, and establish policies and tools that will help to reduce and ultimately eliminate racial disparities

On July 7, 2020, in the midst of the George Floyd protests and the pandemic, the supervisors voted to explore whether it would be possible to close the jail within a year and reinvest the savings in underserved communities.

Meanwhile, the supervisors have given the Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group an office as it figures out what to do with the $2.2 billion the county was going to spend replacing Men's Central Jail.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva greets new recruits during the graduation ceremony for class 433 of the L.A. County Sheriff's Academy at East Los Angeles College, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (Kyle Grillot for LAist)

- SHERIFF FUNDING -

Law enforcement budgets were once a backwater for activists and journalists. But with the killing of George Floyd sparking nationwide calls for reform, they're getting a lot of attention.

"Suddenly budget work has become sexy," Justice L.A.'s Senior Policy Leader Ivette Alé told LAist.

Almost all of the money for the Sheriff's Department comes from the county general fund -- a pool of tax revenue the county can spend as it pleases.

LASD has a budget of about $3.5 billion (which dwarfs the LAPD's). A large portion of those billions goes to feeding, clothing, housing, and managing about 12,000 incarcerated people every day.

The Sheriff's Department is responsible for overseeing the entire jail system, which includes seven facilities stretching from South L.A., to downtown, to northern parts of the county. It's a massive operation.

The byzantine county budget document is almost impenetrable. If you have the intestinal fortitude, you can dig into the details of how the sheriff spends his money in the recommended county budget for 2020-21.

If you'd rather not go down that tunnel of pain, here are some basics:

The budget is approved by the Board of Supervisors. In fact, the only control the board has over the independently elected sheriff is money. Once they hand it over, the sheriff can spend it any which way, without restriction.

The board sought to rein in Sheriff Alex Villanueva's deficit spending in 2019 when it withheld $143 million from him and slapped a partial hiring freeze on the department.

In its Care First Budget, L.A. County Reimagined report, Justice L.A. proposed taking $1 billion away from the sheriff's department budget. It urged a wide range of cutbacks to homeland security operations, Metrolink patrols, the helicopter bureau, and community college district patrols. "Our communities are not safer because of the sheriff," said the group's policy advisor.

In addition, Justice L.A. urged the Board of Supervisors to immediately close Men's Central Jail and either release or transfer all of the inmates housed there to other facilities. The group says the $160 million in annual operating costs should be transferred to community-based organizations.

Calls for slashing the sheriff's budget come amid a projected $1 billion drop in tax revenue to the county because of COVID-19. That already prompted the supervisors to reduce the sheriff's requested budget by $400 million.

You can read more about that here and here, where Villanueva threatened to close patrol stations in response to the board's action.

It's worth noting the board and Villaueva have had a rocky relationship dating back to his re-hiring of a deputy accused of domestic violence. He has recently been feuding with the supervisors over body cameras.

(Chava Sanchez/LAist)

- LAPD FUNDING -

Almost all of the money for L.A.'s police department comes from the city's general fund -- a pool of tax revenue the city can spend as it pleases. LAPD funding still accounts for nearly 54% of the city's general fund. That's way too much, according to Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.

Historically, police budgets have been off-limits for tinkering. Elected leaders' fears of being perceived as soft on crime, combined with the power of the Los Angeles Police Protective League (the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers), has meant that reducing the budget in any significant way was never really on the table.

As with the Sheriff's budget, the killing of George Floyd changed all that.

After mounting pressure from Black Lives Matter L.A. supporters, on July 1, the L.A. City Council voted to cut $150 million from the LAPD's budget and redirect the money to Black and Latino communities. The cuts will be achieved in part by scaling back on new hires and trimming the force from 10,009 officers to 9,757 by July 2021.

The police union denounced the move, saying it would "cripple" training, boost the city's debt for unpaid overtime, and slow down emergency response times. The city administrative officer and chief legislative analyst acknowledged that scaling back hiring "may negatively impact response times."

The cuts were "a step forward" but "mostly symbolic," said Black Lives Matter L.A. co-founder Melina Abdullah. BLM's People's Budget calls for abolishing law enforcement (in its current form) by cutting the LAPD's budget by 90% and redirecting the rest of the money towards mental health care, housing, and other social services (i.e. the catch-all term "Defund the Police").

A protestor gets water poured into his eyes after tear gas was deployed by police in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

- USE OF FORCE -

One of the most important things you need to know: California recently redefined the circumstances under which the use of deadly force by a police officer is considered justifiable. A new law, AB 392, took effect Jan. 1 and allows officers to use deadly force only when they reasonably believe that it's necessary to save themselves or someone else from imminent serious bodily injury or death.

Previously, California used a similar federal standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court that did not include the word "necessary."

It remains unclear how this new, tighter language will play out in the courts. Will prosecutors use it to file criminal charges against officers who use deadly force? That remains to be seen.

But the new law also made another major change. It said prosecutors may consider the actions of an officer leading up to a shooting. That's significant because it means district attorneys in California can address a problem called "officer-created jeopardy."

Here's one example: an officer jumps in front of a fleeing car and then shoots the driver because the officer's life was in danger ... even though it was the officer's decisions that created the danger of being killed by the car.

Under the new law, prosecutors can ask whether an officer unnecessarily placed themself in a dangerous situation and whether the officer was negligent in the moments leading up to a violent confrontation.

Another thing to know about the use of force by police is that many shootings are now caught on video by an officer's body-worn cameras. California requires police departments to make that video available to the public within 45 days of a shooting -- unless releasing it would interfere with an investigation.

The LAPD started equipping its officers with body cams nearly five years ago. The Sheriff's Department still doesn't have them, but has promised to start rolling them out later this year (see details on the resulting funding feud above).

The images from body cameras are often disturbing, but it allows the public to see what happened -- at least from the officer's vantage point.

For a better understanding of the use of force, here's an LAPD video of a fatal shooting of a man with a knife in April. It will take upwards of 10 months for the department to present its findings on the shooting to the Police Commission, which will then decide whether the officer followed department policy.

An activist holds up a picture of Kisha Michael, left, and Marquintan Sandlin. The city of Inglewood has settled for $8.6 million in a wrongful death suit over their fatal shooting by police in February 2016. (Frank Stoltze/KPCC)

- HOW MANY PEOPLE HAVE BEEN KILLED BY POLICE IN L.A.? -

Black Lives Matter L.A. has said that 601 people in L.A. have been killed by police since District Attorney Jackie Lacey took office in December 2012. BLM also says Lacey should be voted out of office for not prosecuting any of those officers. Charges were filed, however, against one: Sheriff's Deputy Luke Liu, for the killing of an unarmed man in Norwalk.

BLM leaders have said their number includes people who died in jail of natural causes and suicide, as well as people killed in car crashes involving law enforcement. That's in part because, as Black Lives Matter L.A. co-founder Melina Abdullah told LAist, the organization believes the police can't be trusted to report truthfully on deaths that happen in police custody. One example? Minneapolis police initially told the public that George Floyd died after a "medical incident." It was only after bystander footage was released that it was considered a homicide (one of the officers was charged with second-degree murder).

"It's important that we remember that we can't rely on police to tell us what is a suicide, what is a death at the hands of police," Abdullah said. "So any time someone is in police custody and they die, we're counting those numbers."

Our review of L.A. County Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office data compiled in the L.A. Times Homicide Report found law enforcement officers have killed 329 people since 2013. The Homicide Report lists 877 people killed by law enforcement in L.A. County since Jan. 1, 2000.

In the 20 years included in the coroner's data, a total of 351 killings by police were reported in the city of L.A.

To learn more, check out our "Officer Involved" project, which takes you deep inside the dynamics of police shootings and looks at how officers are trained. The 2015 KPCC investigation found that police in L.A. County -- that's the LAPD, the Sheriff's Department, and all the other departments -- fatally shot Black people at triple their proportion of the population.

The pattern was not repeated with any other racial group.

The California Department of Justice released a report in 2017 with similar findings.

In our 2018 podcast Repeat, reporter Annie Gilbertson dug into Sheriff's Department shootings and found that more than 30 deputies opened fire at least three times during their careers. She also found time and time again that officers were returned to the field even after investigations found the person they shot was unarmed.

The podcast dives specifically into the case of one deputy who, records show, shot at four people in the span of seven months. Listen here.

To learn even more about police reform, read the report by President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, written in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. It deals with a whole array of policing issues, with a focus on how to reform police rather than defund them (which Black Lives Matter would say isn't enough).

Finally, when it comes to cops using force, you should know that there's something called a "use of force continuum." Officers are trained to use the lowest level of force possible when approaching someone. What's the lowest level of force? It's actually their mere presence, which can act as a deterrent.

In the wake of the Brown killing in Ferguson, police departments across L.A. re-trained officers in the art of de-escalation. Police are already trained to calm people down in high-stress situations... even if they don't always do it. And it's not uncommon for officers to have a situation under control, only to have another officer show up and escalate tension.

The L.A. Police Commission revised its use-of-force policy to include de-escalation in 2017. The LAPD also publishes a use-of-force year-end review annually -- here's the one from 2019.

One last thing: The activist research group Campaign Zero has come up with an interesting "model use of force policy" that's also worth a look. Some activists have criticized it as a misguided approach to reformation.

The Los Angeles Police Department headquarters, located in downtown L.A. (Andrew Cullen for LAist)

- TRANSPARENCY -

Police records are notoriously hard to get.

But they're particularly hard to get in California. You cand find out more in the L.A. Times' deep dive into the history of transparency.

In the 1970s, powerful police unions convinced the legislature to pass -- and Gov. Jerry Brown to sign -- a law that virtually locked away discipline reports. Misconduct was kept in the dark -- even from prosecutors.

In addition, the families of people killed by police have often been forced to file lawsuits just to obtain access to investigative files that might shed light on the death of their loved one.

Then, there was a dramatic shift.

Amid a changing debate about policing -- fueled in Sacramento by the 2018 killing of Stephon Clark by police -- the state Legislature passed a bill in 2019 that opened up police discipline and investigative records in three key areas:

The ACLU, which helped sponsor the law, has more information here.

Still, many police departments have fiercely resisted complying. Some have refused to turn over documents. Others have put up roadblocks. For example, the L.A. County Sheriff's Office wanted us to pay over $3,000 for access to records from the county jail system.

In addition, unions representing law enforcement officers filed more than 20 lawsuits trying to block the release of records from before Jan. 1, 2019, when the law took effect.

KPCC/LAist and the Los Angeles Times successfully opposed the unions' attempts.

That's a long way of saying that despite the changes, the battle for police records rages on.

Early in 2020, KPCC/LAist partnered with more than 30 news organizations to form the California Reporting Project. Reporters are currently working together to request, review, and share records from every law enforcement agency in the state.

An L.A. police officer wears an AXON body camera during the Immigrants Make America Great March to protest actions being taken by the Trump administration on Feb. 18, 2017. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

- ACCOUNTABILITY -

Perhaps the most significant breakthrough in police accountability in the past decade: body-worn cameras.

Bystander cameras have played an increasingly important role in watchdogging police since the Rodney King video was seen by the world in 1991. It was also a bystander video that brought widespread awareness to the killing of George Floyd.

Body cams provide a different view, and sometimes a better one. In some cases, they also negate the argument by police that a bystander video didn't capture the whole incident.

Body-worn cameras are now a litmus test of a department's commitment to accountability. The LAPD started putting cameras on its officers in 2015 and has now outfitted 7,000 of them.

The Sheriff's Department won't start outfitting deputies until later this year -- it's the last major police agency in the country to start using body cams.

Why? The Board of Supervisors balked at the price tag for the cameras presented by former Sheriff Jim McDonnell. After taking office in 2018, Sheriff Villanueva offered a plan at a much lower cost, but the process still moved slowly -- prompting him to accuse the board of dragging its feet.

California law now requires police departments to release all video (from body cams, dashboard cams, or other cameras) collected at the scene of a shooting or other major use of force that causes great bodily injury within 45 days of the incident -- unless it would interfere with an investigation.

This report from the National Institute of Justice examines best practices for reviewing body-cam evidence.

As we know, releasing such videos can be powerful. Among the more disturbing in the L.A. area:

But there are still two key questions about who can view the body-cam videos, and when:

  1. How much access does the public have to not just footage of shootings and other major uses of force, but to all body-cam video recorded by officers? The LAPD and LASD argue it's evidence and therefore the public should not have access. Watchdogs say that needs to change if we want to truly hold law enforcement accountable.

  2. When can officers view the video of a shooting, in which they were involved -- before or after they write their version of what happened? Again, the LAPD and LASD insist their cops should view the video first. Watchdogs say officers should provide justification for why they opened fire before they see video, which could prompt them to alter their version of events.

Body-cam video can catch a lot in the name of accountability. But any expert will tell you that, on the most basic level, officers need to keep their partners in check.

Consider an April incident in Boyle Heights in which an LAPD officer repeatedly punched a homeless man.

The officer's partner was there. The footage from the officer's body camera starts at 8:18 in the video. And it's very possible the incident wouldn't have been reported to superiors as an excessive use of force if there had been no bystander video.

When an officer refuses to speak up about a colleague's bad behavior, this is known as the code of silence. Historically, it's been a huge problem in policing. The National Institute of Ethics published a very good paper on it.

Police leaders will need to create a culture of accountability and establish systems in which people can feel safe reporting incidents of wrongdoing. Watchdogs say too few do.

Now would be a good time to watch a short clip from the movie Serpico.

Supervisors -- sergeants and lieutenants, mostly -- can play a critical role in accountability, whether it's on the front lines of a protest or in a station house reviewing body-cam footage. It's imperative that they refuse to honor the code of silence.

Accountability is currently playing out in very different ways at the LAPD and Sheriff's Department.

At the LAPD, the Police Commission -- a five-member civilian panel appointed by the mayor -- selects the chief of police, establishes department policy, and decides whether an officer who shot someone followed policy, even when that officer is off-duty.

The commission also has an inspector general who conducts audits, reviews shootings, and investigates citizen complaints. That's a lot of power, and it's rare in the world of police oversight.

However, the chief still runs the department and, along with an internal board, decides when to actually discipline officers -- including those who shoot.

Translation: the Police Commission can decide a shooting was bad, but the chief can choose to do nothing about it.

It's different at the Sheriff's Department. The sheriff is voted into office, and is beholden only to the voters. There's nothing analogous to the Police Commission -- no weekly public meeting where civilians can ask questions and demand answers.

The sheriff doles out discipline as he or she pleases, and may choose to short-circuit said discipline, as Sheriff Villanueva has done.

In 2016, the Board of Supervisors created the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission. But it's advisory only. When Villanueva repeatedly refused to provide information about the department to the panel, voters in March 2020 approved a measure giving the commission subpoena power.

But the sheriff has continued to resist the oversight (the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement is a great place to go to learn more about this issue).

When talking about holding police accountable, here are a few additional things to keep in mind:

Nationally, law enforcement officers have rarely been prosecuted for their involvement in fatal shootings. The Mercury News has a searchable list of police officers and sheriffs who have been convicted of crimes. It includes 179 individuals in Los Angeles County. Some of them are still working.

Here are a few of the many cases involving law-enforcement accountability over the last decade in Los Angeles:

- READ MORE ABOUT LAPD'S BUDGET -

- READ MORE ABOUT POLICE AND SHERIFF TRANSPARENCY -

- READ MORE FROM THE CALIFORNIA REPORTING PROJECT -

- WHAT DO YOU WANT TO KNOW? ASK US QUESTIONS -

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With reporting and contributions by Frank Stoltze, Gina Pollack, and Brianna Lee.


Image Credit (top): Chava Sanchez/LAist