Friday, May 27, 2022
Dialogue, not disruption, is the path to LAPD reform
By Matthew M. Johnson  
Published May 12, 2016

Matt Johnson

In September of 2015 I was appointed to the Police Commission by Mayor Eric Garcetti and was immediately elected president by my peers. I accepted the position because I felt that, working with my fellow Commission colleagues, we could make a difference in continuing the positive evolution of the LAPD.

The Department has had a checkered past which contributed to civil unrest in 1965 and 1992. In 2001, the LAPD was ultimately forced to enter a Federal Consent Decree. Under the Consent Decree, the Department was required to make major reforms that led to a positive institutional transformation. Despite this progress, we are living in challenging times. The LAPD, like police departments across our country, is facing a crisis of confidence with minority communities, particularly African Americans. As a result of both real and perceived racial disparities in policing, there are deepening wounds in Los Angeles and cities across our country.


Since joining the Commission, I have met with hundreds of people — community leaders, clergy, elected officials, and everyday Angelenos — individually and in groups.

I have also listened to those who have raised their concerns in our Commission meetings, concerns that have included criticism of me, personally, for not doing enough to hold the Department or the Chief of Police accountable. I understand and appreciate their perspective; I simply disagree with it. In my view, the work we are doing — from the widespread rollout of digital in-car video and body cameras, revising our use-of-force policy, strengthening the Department’s response to homelessness and mental health issues, addressing implicit bias, and providing unparalleled transparency in the aftermath of officer-involved shootings — shows we are not only moving in the right direction, but leading the nation.

That is not to ignore or minimize the plain fact that the LAPD has had a difficult history, and continues to face challenges today. Like elsewhere in the nation, attention here has remained sharply — and rightly — focused on issues of race, use of force, accountability, and policing.

We are fortunate here in L.A. to have uniquely powerful and robust citizen oversight of our police department. The Police Commission sets the overall policy and goals for the Department, while the Chief manages daily operations and implements the Commission’s objectives. The Commission is also responsible for reviewing every significant officer-involved use of force — such as a police shooting or other use of force resulting in a person being hospitalized, or a death occurring while in police custody. We determine whether or not the involved officers acted appropriately.

The old view of the Police Commission was that it provided ineffectual oversight and failed to ensure transparency and accountability. That view was reinforced over the years by incidents that included two riots, the findings of the Christopher Commission, the Rampart scandal, and the eventual implementation of the Federal Consent Decree.

We emerged from the Consent Decree a transformed Department. Today, the Police Commission is recognized nationally as a model of civilian oversight. The investigations of its Inspector General, its progressive policies, and its focus on systemic change within the LAPD have been cited by both national and international civilian oversight groups as best practices. The Police Commission also has a stronger and more positive relationship with the LAPD, Chief Charlie Beck, and the larger community.


How did the Police Commission get to where it is today? It was the result of strong leadership from past Police Commissioners like John Mack, Shelley Freeman, Andrea Ordin, Anthony Pacheco, and Paula Madison. It was through the political support of mayors, including Mayor Garcetti, as well as the support of a strong and resilient Inspector General. The Police Commission also relied on long- term, concerted outreach efforts, effective communication and meaningful cooperation with the community both before and after major incidents, and dramatic improvements in the quality of internal investigations. As a result of these efforts, today’s LAPD is an organization that supports robust civilian oversight, and enjoys a more positive and constructive relationship with the diverse communities it serves and represents.

There have been many changes since 13-year old Devin Brown was shot and killed by a Los Angeles police officer in 2005. Since that time, the Police Commission has pushed for significant reforms, including digital in-car video and body cameras. When the rollout of cameras is completed, the LAPD will be the largest municipal police force in the nation with digital in-car video in every patrol car and body cameras on every officer in the field. These cameras will make for more robust investigations of difficult situations, including officer-involved shootings, allegations of excessive force and biased policing (commonly known as racial profiling). In turn, improved investigations will lead to greater public acceptance of both the investigations and their findings.

The Police Commission has also been a statewide leader in the level of transparency to the public, particularly since 2006. When I took this job, I determined that transparency best serves the Department and the public. The State of California has strong privacy protections for police officers, including for their personnel records and internal disciplinary hearings. Yet, in spite of these obstacles, the Police Commission releases more information on every serious use of force incident than any other major law enforcement agency or civilian oversight entity in California. The Police Commission’s abridged summary of each case is posted online and includes an analysis of the facts, the Chief of Police’s recommendations, and details the Commission’s findings and rationale. Further enhancing transparency of these cases, I recently began adding to the Commission’s public agenda the names of involved parties in police shootings and other serious use of force cases that come before us each week.

When I set forth a series of goals for the LAPD last year, I tasked the Department and Inspector General with preparing hard and unvarnished analyses through a series of audits and reports to determine what we can do better. In February, the Department issued the first of these reports – the Use of Force Report for 2015. That 300-page report, which is available to the public, provides a detailed analysis of the use of force by Los Angeles police officers in 2015, as well as a comparison to the prior five years. Details include officer and suspect ethnicity, whether the suspect was mentally ill, under the influence, or a gang member. The geographic location, weapons found, and many, many other details are also included and scrutinized. It is by far the most comprehensive report of its kind in the nation, and further solidifies our commitment to transparency and accountability. It is an incredibly valuable tool for all of us to understand force used by Department personnel.

About a month ago, the Inspector General issued our second report. This report laid out the evolution of use of force-related policy and training over the last decade. This second report included 12 recommendations — the most controversial of which requires that the old language regarding using deadly force as a last resort be reinstated and that officers’ attempts at de-escalation be a factor in determining the reasonableness of an officer’s actions.

I knew that we would get pushback from the Police Protective League and others. However, we will keep pushing and will not give in. It’s my expectation that the work we do here in Los Angeles will become the standard for the nation.

And we will continue to listen to as many voices in our City as possible to gain insight, ideas, and constructive feedback. Beginning in June the Commission will hold regular Police Commission meetings in each of the four police bureaus. These meetings will be held in the evening, to encourage as much local participation as possible and increasing the possibility for Angelenos to participate in the vital function of citizen oversight. The exact times, dates and locations will be announced shortly.

I look forward to those meetings, and the dialogue that will result. The right to self-expression and free speech are fundamental rights and essential in preserving democratic values and promoting the common good. A robust exchange of ideas is necessary to the health of our community.

Yet, none of this works without respect for each other. Embracing civility in our discourse allows diverse and impassioned opinions and viewpoints to be considered with respect and due consideration in an inclusive and respectful environment. I have made a commitment to routinely give people — including those who routinely disrupt meetings — more time to have their voice heard, to immediately respond to questions or comments, and to agendize issues that are raised week after week. These include the Department’s process for investigating officer-involved shootings, death notifications, and more.

I have also repeatedly offered to meet with the groups who routinely disrupt Commission proceedings. I have established ground rules for those meetings because those groups have shown little interest in conversation. Rather, they have repeatedly opted for disruption, or — in the case of a meeting last year at a house of worship — in outright hostility.

We cannot let any obstacles get in the way of the serious work we have left to do. My leadership as president of the Commission is geared toward building on the accomplishments of the last decade. And I am determined to do it in a way that respects, honors, and responds to the sacrifices made by our officers, the pain that is felt in communities of color, and the will of the people of Los Angeles.

Our city deserves nothing less.

Categories: Exclusive | Opinion

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