Will Police Be Held Accountable for Fatally Shooting Ezell Ford?
On Tuesday, a civilian review board unanimously ruled that two Los Angeles police officers acted improperly in the fatal shooting last year of 25-year-old Ezell Ford, an unarmed, mentally ill black man. The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners found that both officers violated government policy when they drew their guns on Ford, while one acted “out of policy” in every area examined—from initial encounter to the use of lethal force. Already, Ford’s death had been ruled a homicide: He was shot three times, including once in the back. Now the question is: Will the police officers be held accountable?
It’s a question that resonates frequently in fatal police encounters with civilians. It drives the perception that, essentially, police can get away with murder. Two days before Ford’s death, a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri; Wilson left the force but faced no criminal charges. In New York City, Eric Garner, a black man, was choked to death by police for allegedly selling loose cigarettes; a grand jury decided not to indict the officers involved. In Cleveland, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was fatally shot by two police officers. In Baltimore, a young black man named Freddie Gray was killed in police custody—an incident that’s unusual in that the arresting officers were indicted. These cases have prompted the Obama administration to launch a broad rethinking of America’s criminal justice system, including possibly requiring that fatal law enforcement encounters with civilians be investigated by third parties.
Police have killed thousands of people since 2005, but barely 60 people have been charged in these deaths. The problem is not a few bad police officers but a systemic lack of accountability for law enforcement. The truth is, most existing accountability mechanisms—civilian review boards, for instance—lack the ability or desire to impose consequences.
The case of Ezell Ford begins on Aug. 11, 2014, when Los Angeles police officers stopped him near his home. It’s unclear why he was stopped. Police officers reportedly said they believed Ford was getting rid of drugs. No illegal substances were found. Police claim that Ford initially tried to walk away and reached for one of the officer’s guns.
The Los Angeles Police Department has killed more people than any other law enforcement agency in California, the state that leads the nation in killings by police. At least 40 people in Los Angeles County have been killed by law enforcement over the last 12 months. Since 2000, at least 624 people have been killed by county law enforcement, or roughly one person every week. At least 19 of those killed were mentally ill, autistic, or deaf, according to the Youth Justice Coalition, a Los Angeles–based activist group. More than 80 percent were black or Latino. None of the officers involved in these incidents was charged with a crime.
On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners hosted a session for citizens to discuss Ford’s case. At several points, protesters chanted, “Black lives matter.” Ford's mother, Tritobia, was one of many who pleaded for justice. “I’m grieving,” she told the commissioners as tears streamed down her face. “I’m begging you, please. Please—my son would never grab for no gun. He wanted to live. That’s all he wanted to do.… He didn’t deserve to die.”
That the commission agreed with Ford’s mother is somewhat surprising: Its five civilian members, who are appointed by the mayor, rarely disagree with Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. Beck had previously determined that the officers involved in Ford’s shooting acted appropriately. It’s not clear what disciplinary actions—if any—Beck will take, given the commission’s finding. It’s worth noting that in 2014, when the commission ruled that eight LAPD officers violated policy by firing more than a hundred rounds at two innocent women, Beck responded by ordering the officers to undergo more training before returning to the field. No officer involved in a lethal incident has been fired under Beck’s watch. The Los Angeles County district attorney, Jackie Lacey, could also pursue criminal charges in Ford's case.
For now, the officers involved in Ford’s death are still employed by the LAPD.
As one young man testified during Tuesday’s hearing: “The price that any single one of us pay for a parking ticket is far greater than any officer has paid for killing Ezell Ford.”