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Policing Los Angeles: The Forces At Work And The Scope Of Their Power
There's LAPD and LASD — and 70 more(!) police departments operating in Los Angeles County.
Policing explained illustration
Photo illustration
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist )
(Chava Sanchez
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LAist )
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The sight of an officer holding his knee on George Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes until he died from asphyxiation triggered nationwide protests in 2020.

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

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

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Suddenly, officials were talking about ideas once considered beyond the pale — like defunding police departments and ending qualified immunity for officers.

And the talk of reform wasn't limited to police and sheriff's departments. Activists also sought dramatic changes in L.A.'s District Attorney's office, Probation Department, and jail system.

These are complicated issues. 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.

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The LAPD's Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown L.A.
(Andrew Cullen
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For LAist)

The Scope

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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 more than 70 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.

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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• As of February 2021: 9,799 officers• 2,989 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)

  • 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.

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Stock: Juvenile Detention Jails
An entryway into Central Juvenile Hall, a youth detention center in Los Angeles County housing both boys and girls.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

The Jails

L.A. has the largest local jail system in the country. As of April 2021, it held about 15,000 inmates.

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

L.A. jails have long been a battleground for criminal justice reform. Lawsuits dating back to the 1970s described filthy conditions including broken toilets and infestation of vermin. They also described 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 that "dates back many years." It blamed then-Sheriff Lee Baca and his Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Both were later convicted of trying to cover up those abuses, and both are now serving time in federal prison.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca Announces Resignation
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced his unexpected retirement on January 7, 2014
(David McNew
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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 the U.S. Department of Justice that requires a wide range of reforms, from reduced use of force against inmates to improved mental health care.

As a result of that agreement, hundreds of new cameras in the jails serve as a deterrent to excessive force by deputies; in addition, the county created the Correctional Health Services division to focus on providing better care to inmates.

For years, advocates argued 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 inmates with mental health issues do not need to be in jail.

Advocates also pointed 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."

Many law enforcement leaders argued that homeless and mentally ill people present a danger to themselves and/or others. They also pointed out that L.A. didn't have enough community care facilities to safely house everyone who is experiencing mental illness or is homeless.

But the political landscape shifted, and in February 2019 the Board of Supervisors took the extraordinary step of canceling plans to replace the aging downtown Men's Central Jail (MCJ) with a new lockup.

The board voted to instead 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 dominated by health care professionals and activists, not Sheriff's officials.

In March 2021, a new working group said it would take 18 months to two years to close MCJ.

The working group, led by the County Office of Diversion and Reentry and the Sheriff’s Department, in partnership with community groups and service providers, laid out a three-pronged strategy for shutting down the nearly 60-year-old, "unsafe, crowded and crumbling" jail:

  • Redistribute the MCJ population to other jails;
  • Invest “significantly” in beds and services within the community;
  • Divert some 4,500 people with mental health issues out of jail (roughly the number of people being held at MCJ).

The report recommended adding 3,600 beds for community-based mental health care and some 400 beds for “individuals with serious medical, [substance use disorder] and/or housing needs” within the next two years.

The working group did not put a price tag on the overall effort, while saying it will be “particularly challenging” figuring out how to pay for it, given “the unprecedented housing and budget crises exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva greets new recruits at their graduation ceremony on Jan. 4, 2019 at East Los Angeles College.
(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 suddenly drew a lot of attention.

Almost all 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 15,000 incarcerated people every day in the county's seven jail facilities.

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. Most of it is devoted to paying deputies.

If you'd rather not go down that tunnel of pain, here are the 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 the supervisors hand it over, the sheriff can spend it any which way, without restriction.

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

In its June 2020 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.

Calls for slashing the sheriff's budget came amid a projected $1 billion drop in county tax revenue because of COVID-19. That already had forced 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 cuts.

It's worth noting the board and Villanueva have had a rocky relationship dating back to his re-hiring of a deputy accused of domestic violence.

LAPD Funding

Almost all 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.

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 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 that.

Protests June 5 2020 Police Brutality Black Lives Matter City Ha
L.A. City Hall, June 5, 2020.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

After mounting pressure from Black Lives Matter L.A. supporters, the L.A. City Council voted in July 2020 to cut $150 million from the LAPD's budget and redirect the money to social services and alternatives to policing in Black and Latino communities in particular.

The LAPD cuts were achieved in part by scaling back on new hires and trimming the force from 10,009 officers to 9,757 by July 2021, according to the department.

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, presented to the city council in June 2020, called 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.

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(Tom Andrews/LAist)

Use Of Deadly Force

Here's 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. AB 392, which took effect in January 2019, 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."

AB 392 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."

It remains to be seen whether prosecutors will use the new legal standards to file criminal charges against officers who use deadly force.

Another thing to know about police use of force is that many shootings are now caught on video by an officer's body-worn camera. 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 in 2015. The Sheriff's Department began placing cams on its deputies in October 2020, with a plan to have all its frontline personnel wearing them by the spring of 2022.

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. Internal affairs investigators and prosecutors say the footage can play an important role in deciding whether an officer's actions were within policy and the law.

Even with video, use of force cases can be complex. For example, here's body cam footage of a sheriff's deputy fatally shooting 25-year-old Fred Williams III in October 2020 as Williams was jumping over a fence in Willowbrook with a gun in his hand.

The deputy says on the video that Williams pointed the gun at him, although that is not at all clear from the footage. But a use of force expert we consulted argued that it doesn't matter.

While "you don’t see it directly pointing at the deputy ... it is absolutely reasonable for this deputy to believe that this individual with a handgun, within a nanosecond, could point that gun at the deputy and shoot him," said Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County Sheriff’s Deputy who analyzes use of force incidents.

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An activist holds a picture of Kisha Michael, left, and Marquintan Sandlin. The city of Inglewood paid $8.6 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit over their fatal shooting by police in February 2016.
(Frank Stoltze
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LAist)

How Many People Have Been Killed By Police In LA?

There were 605 officer or deputy shootings between Dec. 3, 2012 and May 31, 2020, according to the L.A. County District Attorneys Office. Of those shootings, 343 were fatal.

The L.A. Times Homicide Report also tracks shootings; as of April 14, 2021, it listed 923 people killed by law enforcement in L.A. County since Jan. 1, 2000.

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 law enforcement in L.A. County — 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 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.

Finally, when it comes to cops using force, you should know 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 an officer's mere presence, which can act as a deterrent.

The L.A. Police Commission revised its use-of-force policy in 2017 to include de-escalation. The LAPD also publishes an annual use-of-force year-end review — 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 reform.

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LAPD headquarters in downtown LA.
(Andrew Cullen
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For LAist)

Transparency

Police records are notoriously hard to get.

And they're particularly hard to get in California. You can 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 in 2019, there was a dramatic shift.

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

  • Records related to any incident in which a law enforcement officer fired a gun at a person (regardless of whether someone was hit), or used force that resulted in serious injury or death. You can get these records regardless of whether the department found the officer acted properly.
  • Records related to incidents in which an agency found that an officer committed sexual assault against a member of the public, which includes attempts to coerce or proposition sex while on duty. (The change in the law led to this story.)
  • Records related to incidents in which an agency found that an officer engaged in dishonesty in the investigation, reporting, or prosecution of crime or police misconduct. This kind of dishonesty could include filing a false report, testifying untruthfully, or planting evidence.

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.

Since 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.

March Against Trump's Immigration Policies Takes Place In Los Angeles
An L.A. police officer wears an AXON body camera.
(David McNew
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Getty Images)

Accountability

Perhaps the most significant breakthrough in police accountability in the past decade has been the body-worn camera.

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 refute 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 started outfitting deputies in October 2020.

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 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 its 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.

The National Institute of Ethics published a very good paper on this.

Police leaders 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 clip from the 1973 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.

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

There's nothing analogous to the Police Commission. 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.

Still, 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:

  • Qualified immunity: it makes it harder to sue police. Learn about it here and here.
  • Police union money: it has played a powerful role in local elections and influenced the way elected officials have historically treated police.
  • Strong discipline: many experts say discipline, along with good training and effective supervision, is crucial to changing police accountability.

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 L.A. County. Some of them are still working.

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A mural of Ezell Ford at the site where he was shot and killed by two LAPD officers in 2014.
(David McNew/Getty Images)

Notable Cases In LA

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

  • 2011: Downey police arrived at a gas station to respond to a call about an armed robbery. They later said that 31-year-old Michael Nida, who was at the gas station, approached them in a threatening manner before running away. At some point during the chase, Officer Steven Gilley shot and killed him. Nida was the father of four children — family members said that when the officers arrived, he was buying cigarettes while his wife bought gas. It turns out he probably wasn't the person the police were looking for when they got the initial call, according to the Sheriff's Department, which was tasked with investigating. The city of Downey agreed to pay Nida's family a $4.5 million settlement in 2013, but Gilley did not face criminal charges. In 2019, KPCC/LAist reporters learned that many of the records for that investigation were purged right before SB 1421 (the law requiring police record transparency) went into effect, so details about the investigation are still unknown.
  • 2012: Abdul Arian, 19, allegedly fled a traffic stop and began driving erratically. He then called 911, reportedly telling the operator that he had a gun and would use it against cops if necessary (it was later discovered that dispatchers had not told LAPD officers Arian said he had a gun). The chase ended on the 101 in Woodland Hills, where police shot and killed Arian in the middle of the freeway after he got out of his car. They fired 90 rounds. It was later revealed that Arian did not have a gun. His family filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging excessive use of force and wrongful death, negligence, and battery. The case was tossed out by a judge a year later.
  • 2014: The L.A. City Council agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to the family of 51-year-old National Guard veteran Brian Beaird, who was shot and killed by LAPD officers after a car chase. Officers suspected Beaird of drunk or reckless driving and attempted to pull him over. Beaird, who had schizophrenia and may have panicked, led police on an hour-long chase that ended when he crashed into another car at Olympic Boulevard and Los Angeles Street. When he got out of his wrecked vehicle, he put his hands up. However, the three officers mistook the sound of non-lethal bean bag rounds fired by other officers as gunfire, and opened fire on Beaird. He was shot 15 times. Beaird was unarmed. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the three LAPD officers violated department policy. A police disciplinary board found two of the officers guilty of misconduct and fired them. DA Jackie Lacey declined to press criminal charges.
  • 2014: Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old Black man with a history of mental health problems (he had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia), was shot and killed by LAPD officers in South L.A. Ford did not have a weapon. The department said the shooting occurred after Ford struggled with an officer and tried to grab his gun. Ford's family said there was no struggle. Chief Beck said the officers acted within policy, prompting protests. Two weeks after the shooting, the LAPD released the officers' names but requested a "security hold" on the autopsy report. In 2015, both officers were cleared by the LAPD and the Police Commission. In 2017, after a 20-month review, the DA's office said it would not file charges against the two officers. Ford's family later received a $1.5 million settlement.
  • 2014: Just a few days before Ford's death, two sergeants from the LAPD's Newton Division pulled over Omar Abrego, 37, in front of his house. He was still in his Amtrak work uniform. Abrego started to flee and got into an altercation with the sergeants, one of whom punched him three times in the face. Abrego sustained a severe concussion and bruises to his face and body, and later died at the hospital. According to the L.A. Times, an autopsy showed Abrego died from the effects of cocaine but listed the "physical and emotional duress" caused by the altercation as a contributing factor. In 2016, the DA's office declined to charge the LAPD sergeants. In 2017, the city agreed to pay nearly $1 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Abrego's family.
  • 2016: LAPD officers tased 42-year-old Alex Aguilar five times during a strip search. The officers said they tased him after they saw him trying to swallow a bindle of drugs and he allegedly resisted being searched. An autopsy found he choked on a bag of heroin. The family said the officers used excessive force and failed to render aid that could have saved Aguilar's life. The Police Commission ruled that use of the taser violated department policy. In 2019, a federal jury ruled that the LAPD officers were not liable for Aguilar's death.
  • 2019: The L.A. Sheriff's Department faced criticism for ending 45 ongoing misconduct investigations. The investigations involved a variety of allegations against sworn and civilian staff, ranging from sleeping on duty to mistreatment of jail inmates to concealment of inmate grievances. The department also decreased disciplinary penalties in 21 cases, ranging from excessive force to driving under the influence. Instead of being fired, several of the alleged perpetrators received suspensions.

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