Past columns

November 2018

In one of his last acts as Attorney General, Jeff Sessions did his best to paralyze beyond hope of recovery the Justice Department’s programs to fight unconstitutional practices by local governments, especially in the area of policing. His seven-page memo, signed as he was wrapping up business, purported to offer guidance to the department as it weighed future litigation and consent decrees to enforce federal law. In fact, the memo’s requirements would strangle future decrees in their cradle. That will have profound ramifications for the department’s role in addressing police abuse, and, as ProPublica reported last week, may constrain the department in other areas – from fighting pollution to enforcing voting rights.

In the area of law enforcement, those decrees typically require police departments to adopt certain reforms – tracking officer behavior, reporting and analyzing each non-trivial use of force and each stop-and-frisk, controlling  the use of all lethal and less than lethal force options like shotguns or Tasers, requiring documentation of civilian complaints and other such requirements. Those demands, Sessions has said, “reduce morale of the police officers” and, even worse, allow crime to flourish: “Every place these decrees, and as you’ve mentioned some of these investigations have gone forward, we’ve seen too often big crime increases.” Emphasizing, he added: “I mean big crime increases. Murder doubling and things of that nature.”

That would present a difficult debate: What if consent decrees, by introducing federal oversight, improved the constitutionality of local policing but did so at the expense of officer morale and crime? That would be a challenging choice for government officials.

But is that the case?

Let’s start with officer morale. It’s true that these decrees initially annoyed rank-and-file officers. As a reporter for the Los Angeles Times in 2000, I visited Pittsburgh, the first city to agree to a consent decree that imposed federal oversight on its police department. Officers there were mad. One kooky union leader greeted me at his apartment full of pistols and knives with his throaty opposition to the consent decree. One officer told me she was so afraid of repercussions that the only way she would do a traffic stop “is if some guy blew a red light with a baby tied to the bumper.”

But that was 18 years ago. More recently, I spent time visiting LAPD divisions and was struck by how thoroughly the spirit of the consent decree had infused itself into that organization. The signs at the front desk at one division greeted visitors in three languages; officers boasted of making arrests without complaints or incidents; commanders touted their understanding of housing projects rather than only emphasizing their ability to suppress violence in those communities. These were officers who had joined the LAPD during the years of its consent decree and had absorbed its requirements into their work.

Far from suffering from the decree, they were bolstered by it.

How about crime? It would, of course, be a terrible price to pay if, as Sessions and Trump maintain, putting police departments under federal oversight allowed crime to take over communities and forced residents to suffer. It would suggest that liberal demands regarding police conduct put poor and vulnerable people at risk.

Los Angeles offers a perfect test case. It is the biggest police department ever forced to accept a decree, and the decree there extended over 12 years, so there is a long time period over which to evaluate its effects. If one accepts the Trump/Sessions analysis, those must have been miserable years indeed for those poor residents.

The decree in Los Angeles was entered in 2000. There were 50,132 violent crimes committed in the city that year, including 548 murders. It was a frightening time, especially in poor, largely minority neighborhoods. Violent crimes dropped the year after the decree took effect, but that could just have been a quirk of history; crime does bump up and down without regard to policy. But five years after the decree was entered, the number of violent crimes had dropped to 30,492, with 490 murders. That’s significant progress, and certainly not evidence of things getting worse.

But there’s more. Los Angeles’ decree had been assigned to Judge Gary Feess, and the expectation was that it would last about five years. But Feess  would not let the LAPD free of its mandates until he was convinced it had genuinely reformed. Because of that, what had been imagined as a five-year experiment did not end until Feess lifted the decree in May 2013.

By that time, the trend in crime was hard to ignore. For 2012, the final year that LAPD worked under the requirements of the decree, Los Angeles residents experienced 18,293 violent crimes. In that year, 298 people were murdered in Los Angeles.

To recap: Under the decree, violent crime in Los Angeles declined from more than 50,000 incidents a year to under 19,000, and murders dropped from 548 to 298. How does that square with Sessions’ analysis – his contention that “every place” that has been placed under a decree has experienced “big crime increases”?

Consent decrees have not always been welcome in the jurisdictions where the Justice Department has pursued them, but they have improved police behavior and made communities safer. Sessions’ parting shot demonstrates a malign indifference to people of color and other minorities. And it reflects a view of history that is so false it can only be called a lie.

— By Jim Newton

September 2018:

Largely because of the effectiveness of its fabled SWAT team, the Los Angeles Police Department rarely kills a hostage or an onlooker, even in confrontations with armed and often disturbed suspects.

 But Michel Moore, the department’s new chief, had barely settled into his job this summer when his officers shot, not one, but two bystanders in separate incidents. On June 16, a man held a knife to the throat of a homeless woman in Van Nuys; officers fired, killing both the assailant and the woman. Then, on July 21, a suspect, allegedly fleeing a shooting, led police on a car chase, careened into a utility pole at a Trader Joe’s market in Silver Lake, and fled inside the convenience store; officers exchanged fire with the suspect, killing a store manager. 

 This tragic pair of events raised concerns about the department, which once was considered a dangerously violent and sometimes racist agency. It is impossible, of course, to judge an organization as large and complex as the LAPD by such a small number of incidents, but I have reported on and written about the department over the years, and I would offer two thoughts.  

  • One concerns intent.

 What tarnishes the LAPD’s history have been allegations that some of its officers not only have done harm, but that they did it on purpose – that officers in the Rampart Division in the late 1990s, for instance, who robbed a bank and reportedly stole drugs and threatened suspects, did so to enrich themselves and to brutalize the suspects; there was nothing said to have been accidental about it.

 Similarly, among the most shocking aspects of the Rodney G. King beating in 1991 was not only that officers repeatedly struck and kicked King, who had led them on a chase after refusing to be pulled over for speeding, but also that so many other officers watched and did not report any wrongdoing. That suggested a broken police culture, not just some wayward cops.

There is no suggestion that the officers in these shootings intended any harm to the bystanders.

  • Second is the question of official response. 

In the King case, then-Chief Daryl F. Gates at first criticized the officers involved, who had been caught on videotape. But when the LAPD fell under sharp criticism, he defended the department. That sent mixed signals, and Gates, who was combative (he once challenged me to a fist-fight) struggled to toe a straight and consistent line. Mayor Tom Bradley, frustrated and hamstrung by civil service rules that limited his ability to discipline Gates, convened what would come to be known as the Christopher Commission, named for its chairman, attorney Warren Christopher, who would become secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. It was the Christopher Commission that finally showed Los Angeles how to repair its police department. 

 When details of the Rampart scandal were reported, the city’s leadership waffled between pursuing the wrongdoers and arguing that the outrage was isolated and unique. The U.S. Justice Department bore down, insisting that Rampart was part of a larger LAPD failing and that only federal oversight could fix it. The oversight became a major part of the LAPD’s recovery, but the city’s confused response early on was evidence of deep trouble at the department and with the city leadership.

 This time, Chief Moore has sent encouraging signals. He released bodycam and other video and audio recordings that captured the moments leading up to this summer's two shootings. Some critics suggested the release was self-serving because it showed the stressful situations the officers faced and helped explain their actions. But that’s beside the point. Of course, videos of officers shooting bystanders will demonstrate that the officers were under pressure. No officer wakes up in the morning hoping to shoot a bystander. Such shootings are rare precisely because they are the last thing any police officer wants to be involved in.

 In addition, the LAPD made public the names of the officers involved in these incidents, albeit quietly and seemingly with some reluctance. Releasing names is a good practice. For a while, the department had been pulling back from the timely and routine release of officers’ names, an unfortunate departure that did little for officer safety and much to undermine public confidence. Moore’s actions do not suggest an enthusiastic embrace of such releases, but at least the department did what was necessary.

 There is a tendency in police accountability for participants to debate in clichés. Police unions defend “officer safety.” Reformers and news reporters demand “transparency.” As this summer’s shootings demonstrate, there is room for both. Officers deserve respect and empathy for the dangerous situations they confront, and the public is entitled to insight into their actions – including their names and evidence that shows why they did what they did. Moore’s first brush with those challenges as chief suggests reason for hope.

— By Jim Newton