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Criminal Justice

Captain Says LAPD Demoted Him for Reporting Excessive Force By Police During George Floyd Protests

An officer in a gas mask and riot gear is in the foreground, with protesters carrying "Black Lives Matter" and similar signs in the background.
Photo illustration of last year's protests in L.A.
(Chava Sanchez
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An LAPD captain has filed a whistleblower lawsuit that claims he was demoted for warning Chief Michel Moore and other superiors that officers were using excessive force during the protests that erupted last year after George Floyd’s murder.

Capt. Johnny Smith also claims he was demoted for telling commanders that the department’s body camera policy makes it too easy for officers to leave their cameras off.

Neither the LAPD nor City Attorney’s office would comment on the lawsuit. It is their policy to not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit states Smith disclosed to his commanding officers that officers were using bean bag shotguns "unlawfully by targeting and shooting demonstrators as individuals, including media, that were not threatening any individuals or property, but were peacefully protesting." Verbal threats of violence and mere non-compliance by a demonstrator do not alone justify the use of bean bag shotguns "because the use of the round could cause serious injury," the suit adds.

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Smith also demanded that the department investigate the shootings as being unlawful and an excessive use of force, "but was counseled by his commanding officers to 'let it be.' Consequently, no appropriate investigation was initiated," according to the lawsuit.

Echoes Of Other Excessive Force Lawsuits

The allegations in part echo those in a class action lawsuit filed by people who took to the streets to protest Floyd’s murder. It claims the LAPD brutally used hard foam projectiles and batons on people who were peacefully exercising their First Amendment rights. A similar suit has been filed against the Sheriff’s Department.

Three reports that examined how the LAPD handled the protests mostly blamed poor planning, training, and leadership. One said there was disarray among the department’s command staff.

The lawsuit filed by Smith says he was demoted from Captain III, the highest-ranking captain, to a Captain I in Dec. 2020 for also raising concerns about the department’s body-worn camera policy. It claims Smith told superiors that officers were regularly failing to properly activate their body cams, including during "many categorical uses of force."

In 2015, when the LAPD began using body worn cameras, the department issued a policy that requires officers to activate their cameras prior to initiating any investigation or enforcement activity involving a member of the public.

Smith’s lawsuit states the department has since "initiated a policy that intentionally provided an 'out' for officers if they reported in their logs that exigent circumstances prohibited them from turning on their cameras," according to the suit. "Because of the ambiguity of [the] term exigent circumstances, arguably every call could be classified as exigent," it states.

The suit also claims there has been a "total lack of auditing" of officers' use of body cams, and as a result, reports to the Police Commission on the rate at which officers are failing to activate their cameras have been "intentionally misleading."

In July, the department’s Inspector General issued a report that reviewed 53 use of force cases considered by the Police Commission between June 2020 and July 2021.

Of the 218 officers involved in those cases who had body cams, 22% either failed to turn them on in a timely fashion or did not turn them on at all, according to the report.

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Officers have expressed mixed feelings about wearing body cams.

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