Missing the Mark: Activists Say 'Black Lives Matter' While Police Tout Toys for Tots Success

Across the country, the call for transparency and empathy grows louder in the wake of high-profile deaths of unarmed minority men.

A die-in on the steps of the Los Angeles County Police Commissioner building on Dec. 4 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Charles Davis)

Jan 7, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Charles Davis is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets including Al Jazeera, Salon, and Vice.

Brandy Brown choked back tears as she pleaded with the Los Angeles Police Commission to change its ways in the aftermath of the police shooting of her friend, Ezell Ford. “You guys need to stop and think about what’s really happening to us,” Brown said. “You guys have to change things. You cannot keep killing people.”

Brown joined dozens of young people at an often rowdy meeting on Tuesday at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department to speak out against what they see as a pattern of impunity for cops who kill unarmed civilians not just in Los Angeles but all over the country. Many wore shirts that declared, “Black Lives Matter,” a refrain heard from those protesting police violence from New York City to Ferguson, Missouri.

“We’re all here for a reason,” said Brown, stopping to compose herself several times during her allotted two minutes of public comment as a stoic chief of police, Charlie Beck, looked on. “We all have pain in our hearts. We all are angry right now.”

The names Michael Brown and Eric Garner have made national headlines, both having been unarmed when they were killed by officers whom the criminal justice system refused to charge with any crime. But in L.A., similar police killings of black and brown men haven't even reached grand juries and have them so much as consider whether their deaths were crimes—police innocence being a foregone conclusion. In the case of Ford, a 25-year-old black man with a history of mental health issues, it took nearly five months after he was killed near his home in South L.A. by LAPD officers for the city to release the autopsy showing how exactly he died: three bullets, including a fatal one in the back. Since 2000, more than 600 people have died in L.A. County at the hands of police, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“I am Ezell Ford,” a young man told the commission, whose five members are appointed by the mayor to oversee the city's police. “I was shot in the county that leads the nation in killings of community members of law enforcement,” said Ford, one of several speakers who spoke in the name of those killed by law enforcement. His closing line earned applause: “ 'Black lives matter' is not a request—it is a paradigm shift.”

However, while the concerned members of the audience wanted to talk about the injustice—of cops killing unarmed civilians without consequence—the commissioners, at least to start, were all about giving thanks.

“I want to thank the Los Angeles Police Department for everything that they do for kids and families during the holidays,” said Sandra Figueroa-Villa, one of five people on the police oversight body, referring to the LAPD's holiday Toys for Tots program.

“Needless to say,” said commission President Steve Soboroff, “the officers were very much appreciated and sometimes hugged by members of the community and the children.” He then informed his audience that the killing of Ford was off-limits as a point of discussion, adding that for commissioners to do so is “a crime because the investigation is not complete.”

“All of us connected with the LAPD are working harder than ever to build trust within our communities,” said Soboroff. It seems for now that the trust will have to be won with toys, not transparency.

What the commission could talk about was that investigative process, which Soboroff called “the envy of America.” It's “far different than Ferguson and far different than New York,” he stressed, noting that police use-of-force incidents are investigated not just by the LAPD but by the inspector general and the district attorney. The commission can recommend disciplinary actions, he noted, even if the chief of police doesn't want to.

Rarely, though, do the police commission and the police chief disagree. When they do, the commission's recommendations are only that: recommendations. It's up to the chief to decide whether to do anything. While L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey says she's still investigating the Ford killing, in her more than two years in office she has never pursued charges against an officer who killed someone. For all that envious investigating, the consequences for the investigated still tend to be no more severe than a paid vacation.

L.A. has a long history of tension between members of law enforcement and the communities they police. In 1965, the predominantly African American neighborhood of Watts erupted in civil unrest after an attempted arrest of a drunk driver turned into a shoving match between witnesses and police. In 1992, the city was gripped by riots after the police filmed beating up Rodney King the year before were acquitted of charges. And in the late '90s, the city’s Rampart Division was engulfed in a major corruption scandal after its antigang squad was found to be acting as a gang itself, dealing in drugs and even framing rival dealers for murder.

The city would like the public to believe those days are behind it and that it’s now a model for the nation, but in terms of actual accountability, or the lack thereof, it's not clear L.A. is different from the rest of the country at all. There's arguably less transparency: Not only was there a nearly five-month delay in releasing the Ford autopsy, but the city is still waiting on the autopsy for Omar Abrego, a 37-year-old father of three who was beaten to death by police less than two weeks before the killing of Ford—and just four blocks away—after they say an “altercation” occurred during a traffic stop in front of Abrego's home.

That's why many who spoke called for a special prosecutor to investigate incidents of the use of lethal force by police—someone who, unlike the D.A., does not need the LAPD's cooperation in other cases. Still others went even further, arguing there should be a directly elected oversight body at the community level with real authority to discipline problem officers.

Beck didn't say much during the hearing, but he did encourage people to consider what he presented as the bigger picture.

“Officer-involved shootings,” he said, “were down 31 percent [last year] as compared to 2013 and were the lowest that they have been since I’ve been chief of police.” According to Beck, there were 31 such incidents in 2014, compared with 45 the year before. Without major policy shifts to explain the drop, however, there's reason to believe it's just statistical noise: In Beck's first full year as chief, 2010, there were 38 shootings involving the LAPD, rising to 61 in 2011 before falling back down to 36 in 2012.

Those who have lost loved ones were not impressed. “Charlie Beck: I see you on the news,” said Brandy Brown. “You come off as this good guy—no, stop it. Today. We need some answers.”