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LA Explained: The Police
There's the LAPD. And the L.A. Sheriff's Department. And 45 smaller departments. And every Cal State has a department. Also UCLA. And CHP. And FBI. And DEA. And...
A close up of the front of a police motorcycle while people are in the background. The logo reads: "City of Los Angeles. Police."
(Photo by Sergio L.A. via Flickr)
(Photo by Sergio L.A. via Flickr)
(Photo by Sergio L.A. via Flickr)
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If all you know about police in Southern California comes from Hollywood and the news you'd be forgiven for thinking there was only one police department in the Los Angeles area: the LAPD. But you'd be wrong.

Dozens of departments patrol L.A. County, from the giant L.A. County Sheriff's Department with its thousands of deputies to the tiny Sierra Madre PD, whose 16 full-time officers might have a hard time holding back a mob at city hall.

Let's learn about local law enforcement.

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD)

An LAPD car with its emblem on the side of the driver's door with the phrase to protect and to serve.
An LAPD patrol car.
(David McNew
Getty Images North America)

  • The Los Angeles Police Department patrols the city of L.A. only.
  • It's divided into four bureaus, each with five or six divisions (for example, the Central Bureau's Hollenbeck Division patrols Boyle Heights and surrounding neighborhoods).
  • The LAPD has about 10,000 sworn officers and more than 3,500 civilian employees.
  • In 2017 the LAPD began patrolling Metro subway and bus lines through the city — a job the sheriff used to do.
  • The chief of police is selected by the mayor of L.A., runs the day-to-day operations, oversees discipline of officers, and reports to the five-member Police Commission that the mayor appoints.
  • The Police Commission, one of the most powerful civilian oversight bodies in the country, has an inspector general who can investigate department practices. Over the past few years, it mandated de-escalation training, tightened the use of force policy, and ordered the department to start releasing body camera video of critical incidents
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The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department (LASD)

A close-up of a sheriff's uniform shoulder patch that says "Los Angeles County Sheriff."
The L.A. County Sheriff's Department (Photo via Facebook)

  • The L.A. County Sheriff's Department has about 600 fewer sworn deputies than the LAPD (aka about 9,400) but employs twice as many civilians.
  • It's the largest sheriff's agency in the world and it's a much more complicated organization than the LAPD.
  • Sheriff's deputies patrol areas outside the boundaries of L.A. and other cities. That includes communities as far north as Castaic and as far south as Catalina Island, which yes, is part of L.A. County.
  • The department also oversees highly populated areas like East Los Angeles (pop: 125,000) and Altadena (pop: 44,000), as well as little-known places like Del Aire, tucked along the 405 Freeway near LAX, and Oat Mountain, nestled in the Santa Susanna Mountains above the San Fernando Valley.
  • In addition to unincorporated areas of the county, 42 "contract" cities in L.A. County also pay the sheriff's department to patrol their streets. That list includes Compton, West Hollywood and Lancaster, out in the Antelope Valley.

But that's not all.

  • The sheriff also operates the county's sprawling jail system — seven facilities with more than 17,000 inmates. It's the largest local jail in the country.
  • Deputies act as bailiffs and provide courtroom security at 37 courthouses around the county.
  • They patrol nine community colleges.
  • They enforce the law at all county parks and public hospitals.
  • And they still patrol about a quarter of Metro lines.
  • The L.A. County Sheriff is elected by voters, serves four-year terms with no term limits, and does not face the same civilian oversight as the LAPD.
  • A recently created civilian oversight commission currently has no authority over the sheriff, and a new Office of Inspector General can examine the department's policies and practices but not change them.

How Many Other Police Departments Are There In LA County?

There are 45 smaller police departments in the county. Long Beach, Santa Monica, Inglewood and Pasadena are among the cities that have their own police agencies.

But wait. There's more. Every Cal State University has one. And UCLA. There's the CHP, FBI, DEA, ATF. Also the state Department of Justice has men and women with badges and guns going after lawbreakers.

De-Escalation Training

The 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, spurred widespread protests and an examination of how minorities — particularly black men — are treated by authorities.

Leaders at virtually every law enforcement department say officers are already taught at training academies how to calm themselves and suspects during a confrontation. But after Ferguson, the LAPD ordered the entire department to undergo additional de-escalation training.

For example, the LAPD's "Force Option Simulator" — an interactive computer program used for training — now presents officers with fewer scenarios that require them to use deadly force, and more that require them to use de-escalation tactics.

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A sign having across two guard like turrets reads "Los Angeles Police Academy."
The Los Angeles Police department's academy in Elysian Park.
(Kirby Lee

The L.A. police commission also enacted a new de-escalation policy. That reads: "Officers shall attempt to control an incident by using time, distance, communications and available resources in an effort to de-escalate the situation, whenever it is safe and reasonable to do so."

If an officer doesn't follow this policy in the lead up to a shooting or other use of force, he can be subject to discipline.

There have been changes at the sheriff's department too.

Under a settlement agreement to reduce use of force at the jails, the sheriff's department agreed to provide 32 hours of de-escalation training to deputies who work inside the county's seven lock-ups.

The department also agreed to provide an additional eight hours of training every other year.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell also has said his top commanders consider whether a deputy could have de-escalated a confrontation when evaluating any use of force, including shootings.

Mental Health Teams

First, the lingo. Many law enforcement agencies have formed what they call "co-response units" to deal with people who exhibit signs of mental health problems.

Those units consist of one police officer or sheriff's deputy and one mental health clinician.

According to the L.A. County Department of Mental Health, all but six cities have co-response units that include one police officer or sheriff's deputy and one mental health clinician (the outliers: La Verne, San Fernando, Beverly Hills, Claremont, El Segundo and Palos Verdes).

These teams are part of an effort to divert people with mental health issues towards services they need, rather than into the criminal justice system.

Many police departments share clinicians. For example, in the southeastern part of the county, the cities of Bell, Bell Gardens, Downey, Huntington Park, Southgate, Signal Hill and Vernon share four clinicians.

In all, there are 104 co-response units throughout the county, including 32 at the LAPD and around 20 at the sheriff's department.

The LAPD also has eight case managers who try to line up services for people with mental illnesses who have interacted with officers.

What Are My Rights When Interacting With "The Law?"

LAPD motorcycle officers drive past protesters during an outdoor demonstration.
An LAPD motorcycle officer during the protests against the killing of George Floyd in downtown Los Angeles, California on June 6, 2020.
(Kyle Grillot
AFP via Getty Images)

It may sound obvious, but you really do have the right to remain silent - whether you're being questioned about a crime or what you had for breakfast.

Of course if an officer is asking you whether you saw the stop sign you just blew through, it may be better to just answer. Police can make your life difficult if they feel like you're being a jerk.

But if you want to remain silent, you should say so out loud.

And if you're under arrest, of course you have the right to talk to an attorney first.

If police initially just want to talk with you, they're allowed to conduct a "pat down" of your clothing if they suspect you might have a weapon.

But you can refuse any further search of your backpack, your car or your home if they haven't arrested you.

Remember, if you agree to a search, anything they find can be used against you.

Keep Your Hands Where They Can See 'Em

If you're unsure of what's going on, ask if you're under arrest or have been detained.

If you're not under arrest, you have the right to leave.

If you're stopped as a pedestrian or as a driver, remain calm and keep your hands where officers can see them.

If the feds come calling, they may ask you to come to the office for an interview.

You may refuse.

If you agree to talk to the FBI, DEA or the Department of Homeland Security, the ACLU suggests you have a lawyer present.

The civil rights group also says if you want to avoid a "fishing expedition" into your life, you can say you'll answer questions on a specific topic.

Some of this information is widely available but the ACLU website has a very handy "know your rights" page.

What Are My Responsibilities When Dealing With Police?

First and foremost, regardless of whether you're arrested, do not interfere or obstruct what officers are doing.

Police can demand wide leeway when conducting an investigation, and if you start yelling at them or demanding to speak to your sister who's being detained, they could deem that as obstructing their work and arrest you.

Also, don't lie.

Giving false information to a police officer is a misdemeanor in California, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The feds take lying to the FBI or any other federal agent more seriously. That's a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Finally, it's a good idea to remember as many details from an interaction with police and jot them down afterwards - in case there are questions about how you or they behaved.

Are There Gray Areas?

There are always gray areas.

Policing often is about discretion.

A cop doesn't have to give you a ticket. Or tow your car. Or even file a report.

Can I Videotape The Police?

A group of protesters stand on the sidewalk, one with their phone out recording, while a police line is in front of them.
A protester records LAPD officers on November 6, 2020 in Los Angeles.
(Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images)

You can videotape, photograph or otherwise record anything you can see from public spaces, including sidewalks or, in many cases, widely-visited tourist attractions — unless photography is specifically prohibited.

And California courts have decided police cannot have an expectation of privacy while on duty and in public.

Of course, officers generally don't like to be videotaped on the job — just like most of us.

So it's best to give them space to work as opposed to sticking the camera in their face. That could also be considered obstructing their work and you could be arrested.

The ACLU's Southern California chapter says police interference with photographers and videographers exercising their First Amendment rights remains a problem:

"Unfortunately, there is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs from public places, and harassing, detaining and arresting those who fail to comply," the organization states.

Again, because there are so many police departments in L.A., your experience may vary greatly depending on who's enforcing the law in a particular neighborhood.

The ACLU suggests that if you're detained for recording police, ask which crime you committed and politely remind them the First Amendment allows freedom of speech, including recording police.

They're not allowed to search the contents of your camera without your permission. Clearly state that you do not consent to the search.

The police may legally seize your camera only if they have a "reasonable, good faith belief" that it contains evidence of a crime.

They may not delete the images.

How Do I File A Complaint About Suspected Misconduct?

If it's the LAPD, you can file your complaint in person to a sergeant or another supervisor at any station around the city or at the police commission's offices inside headquarters on First Street in downtown L.A.

Complaint forms are available online and at city council offices. You may also file electronically or by regular mail, or call the department's complaint hotline: 800-339-6868.

The department also has a dispute resolution process where the officer and the complainant can sit with a mediator to work out their differences.

If you believe the officer's conduct was egregious — you were injured or you were unlawfully detained for a long period of time — you may want to hire a lawyer.

If you're complaining about a sheriff's deputy, you can also use the telephone. Call 800-698-TALK. You can also call or write any sheriff's station and ask for the Watch Commander. Here's the sheriff's form.

Modern Police Scandals You Should Know About

  • The early 1990's saw an explosion of corruption cases in Los Angeles policing. It began with a federal grand jury indicting 10 L.A. Sheriff's deputies for stealing drugs. Here's an L.A. Times report about it.
  • 1991: Rodney King beating: Everybody knows about this one. The Christopher Commission Report documents the problems at the LAPD that led to it.
  • 1992: The Kolts Commission Report: A series of shootings by L.A. Sheriff's deputies prompted the Board of Supervisors to appoint a panel led by Judge James Kolts. In a seminal report, it found "deeply disturbing evidence of excessive force and lax discipline" at the sheriff's department and named 62 "problem deputies" who had generated multiple use-of-force complaints.
  • 2000: The Rampart Scandal involved anti-gang officers in the Rampart Division stealing cocaine from the evidence locker, stealing drugs from suspects on the streets, beating suspects up and planting evidence. Here's an independent report on the scandal.
  • 2011: The L.A. Jail scandal and indictment of former Sheriff Lee Baca. The ACLU's documentation of brutality inside the jails and an FBI investigation prompted the creation of the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, which led to the indictment of the sheriff, undersheriff and more than 20 other sheriff's officials on corruption and various other charges. Here's the commission's report.
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