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Police In Los Angeles County Kill About 1 Person Every Week

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Demonstrators in downtown protesting the police shooting death of 24-year-old Ezell Ford on August 17, 2014, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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It seems like just about every week there's news that a cop shot one person or another around Los Angeles, but one group decided to crunch the numbers and found out that's true.

Los Angeles Youth Justice Coalition, a group that advocates for young people in their encounters with criminal justice system, released a new report—prompted by the fatal police shooting of Ezell Ford last month. They found that police killed 589 people in the line of duty between January 1, 2000 and August 31, 2014. That's about 43 people each year or one person every eight days.

They requested information from the Los Angeles County Coroner and cross-referenced it with media reports. It's a work in progress. Kim McGill, an organizer with the group, told the Huffington Post that they're requesting more information to find out in each death which agency and officers were involved, what kind of investigation took place and what punishments, if any, were doled out.

Officer-involved shootings are common enough that many of them receive no media attention or scrutiny beyond an item on the Los Angeles Times' Homicide Report, which notes every homicide in the county. The coverage of police killings tends to center around whether a specific incident was justified or not—not what is happening broadly.

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Part of the reason might be there isn't an easy source of information on these killings. The FBI keeps track of all sorts of criminal justice data but not how many people are killed by police. But increasingly, there's been a call for the most basic information on police killing civilians in the line of duty. In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Deadspin announced they're attempting to log every police shooting for 2011 through 2013. For two years, D. Brian Burghart, editor of the Reno News & Review, has been attempting to crowdsourced a database of police violence on his website Fatal Encounters. He writes on Gawker that the project started when he drove by the aftermath of a police shooting and couldn't find any information about it or police shootings in general:

I started to search in earnest. Nowhere could I find out how many people died during interactions with police in the United States. Try as I might, I just couldn't wrap my head around that idea. How was it that, in the 21st century, this data wasn't being tracked, compiled, and made available to the public? How could journalists know if police were killing too many people in their town if they didn't have a way to compare to other cities? Hell, how could citizens or police? How could cops possibly know "best practices" for dealing with any fluid situation? They couldn't. The bottom line was that I found the absence of such a library of police killings offensive. And so I decided to build it. I'm still building it.

In its local report, the Los Angeles Youth Justice Coalition focuses on data in Los Angeles starting in 2007. Most of those killed are young men of color. All but three were killed by gunfire (one was beaten to death, another was killed by a taser). They've found that 97 percent of people killed were men, and 52 percent of them were under 30. Black people make up 28 percent of those killed but 9.2 percent of the county population; latinos were 53.5 percent of those killed and 48.3 percent of the population; white people are 15.4 percent of those killed and 27.2 percent of the population, asian/pacific islanders are 2.8 percent of those killed and 15 percent of the population.

A disheartening trend is that police killings have been increasing even though crime has been dropping. In 2000, police killings made up 3 percent of homicides (33 out of 1074) and in 2013, they made up 7 percent (44 out of 595). So even though there were 479 fewer homicides in 2013 than 2000, the number of police killings has actually gone up.

They said that they've found 19 cases of killing where the civilians were mentally ill, autistic or deaf. Another nineteen were shot reaching for their waistband, nine were running away, five were drunk, eight were threatening to kill themselves but were killed by officers who came to the rescue. The report says that "disturbing patterns" emerged in researching the stories:

In reading through the limited records we have access to, several disturbing patterns emerge including, but not limited to, law enforcement’s inability to adequately and safety address the concerns and actions of people exhibiting mental illness and/or intoxication - including killing several people when they were called to the scene to prevent a suicide; the inability to law enforcement to fairly, safely and humanely treat and protect people with disabilities; the fear, hatred and/or distrust that exists between law enforcement and youth of color; the criminalization and violent response to people who are homeless or perceived as homeless; the failure of law enforcement to listen to and utilize family and community support to prevent violence; the repeated use of “reached for waistband,” “though they had a weapon” as evidence for the need to shoot; the high number of people who were shot while running away from police; the high number of incidents where police shot at automobiles; the high number of people who were in possession of a “fake” or “replica” gun; the high number of people who were shot while possessing a “weapon” other than a gun, including rocks, tree branches and poles; and the high number of incidents that begin with domestic violence or domestic disputes, indicating the need for alternative response to dealing with violence within families and relationships.
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The report says that the burden of proof to show that an officer shooting is justified is too low, and they believe this policy puts youth of color, the homeless, mentally ill or disabled, or people who are intoxicated at risk. Even when police shoot or kill the wrong person in the heat of the moment, the District Attorney will usually let them off without any consequences as long as an officer believes they or the community are in danger when they pulled the trigger. That's why the cop who shot a white surfer who looked nothing like Christopher Dorner manhunt made a "reasonable mistake." And it's why the DA also ruled that a police officer acted "lawfully" when they killed a man out to get cigarettes who they mistook for a robber.

The report calls for more attention, data, oversight and investigation into the issue of police violence at the county, state and federal levels. In sum, McGill says, "Demand a city, a state and a nation where Ezell Ford and Deandre Brunston, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Suzie Peña, and Devin Brown would be in college and not in the ground."