Published on June 26th, 2014 | by Greggory Moore0
Is Long Beach Sufficiently Self-Scrutinizing When It Comes to Police Use of Force?
During the last few years, while the City of Long Beach has touted record-setting lows in crime, the Long Beach Police Department has been under fire for a number of high-profile accusations of excessive force.
But according to the civic bodies responsible for investigating such accusations, the City finds only about 1% of complaints as necessitating officer training or discipline.
According to LBPD records, out of 167 internal investigations conducted between December 2010 and December 2013 concerning allegations of excessive force, only two officers received any sort of discipline. Meanwhile, out of 251 such complaints investigated by the Citizen Police Complaint Commission in 2011 and 2012 combined, only two were sustained.
Included in that time period is the killing of Doug Zerby, shot to death by LBPD officers despite holding only a water nozzle that he was never ordered to drop. In April 2013 a jury found two officers at fault in the shooting and ordered the City of Long Beach to pay Zerby’s family $6.5 million in damages.
Also falling within the time period under examination are various incidents in which the City has paid settlements to alleged victims of excessive force. Among them is $380,000 paid to Perry Grays after a jury found Long Beach police had used excessive force against Grays and arrested him without probable cause; and $50,000 paid to Dorian Brooks to settle a lawsuit filed after a police officer stepped on Brooks’s neck, even though Brooks had fully complied with officers’ orders and was lying facedown on the floor.
In response to the furor surrounding the September 2013 beating of Porfirio Santos-Lopez by several officers, video of which LBPD Chief Jim McDonnell admitted was “disturbing,” McDonnell promised that “each action of the officers will be evaluated fully.”
In an unrelated interview, McDonnell assured Random Lengths News that each use of force by officers “is carefully analyzed,” and that “officers are held accountable based on what they knew at the time and what options they used, what alternative did they have to gain compliance in order to make the arrest. […] And from those, even if the person where the use of force was found appropriate, if there could be lessons found and shared, we do exactly that. If we find that there is a better way an officer could have done something better, certainly that is something that is brought to that officer’s attention through training or otherwise, and it is shared throughout the department, as well.”
Regarding the Dorian Brooks incident, McDonnell says that, while he is restricted by the Peace Officers Bill of Rights from discussing the internal investigation into the incident, “What I can tell you appropriate action was taken. We took it very seriously, and […] certainly, the individuals were held accountable for the actions that you saw in the video. We were as troubled by it as everybody else was.”
Despite McDonnell’s assurances, the perception many have of police in general is that there is unconditional internal support for officers’ actions. For some, an American Police Beat article penned by Long Beach Police Officers Association President Steve James in response to the Zerby verdict is evidence of just such unconditional support.
In the article, James labels the Zerby verdict “a disaster for law enforcement,” one that “impli[es] that police officers are not allowed to protect themselves from a person whom they reasonably believe is pointing a gun at them.”
“I truly hope this decision will not cause officers to hesitate [to use deadly force] during future critical incidents but I am fearful that it may,” James continues. “I just hope everyone continues to trust their training and their instincts. […] The officers reasonably believed that Zerby posed a threat at the moment he took a shooting position with what appeared to be a gun, and they responded accordingly.”
As James points out, the officers who shot Zerby were cleared of any wrongdoing by both the LBPD and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
Obviously the jury in the civil trial disagreed. And in 2013—a year that saw a five-year high for officer-involved shootings, a few of which resulted in the killing of unarmed suspects—they were not the only ones to come to a different conclusion than the City regarding excessive force at the LBPD.
That doesn’t mean they’re right. But if there has been just one incident of excessive force by LBPD officers during each of the last three years—i.e., three total, or one more incident than the LBPD acknowledges—then, despite Chief McDonnell’s promises, the department is not taking a sufficiently critical look at itself.
Findings by the Citizen Police Complaint Commission (CPCC) dovetail with the LBPD’s own findings. In 2011 and 2012 combined (the last period for which an annual report is available), out of 251 complaints of excessive force received, the CPCC sustained only two, as well as recommending training in one separate incident.
CPCC Executive Director Anitra Dempsey says that although she is confident that the results of CPCC investigations are appropriate to the cases that come before them, a complaint’s not being sustained “simply means that there’s not enough evidence” to do so.
Dempsey adds that she and her fellow commissioners believe that the vast majority of the complaints made against the LBPD are in good faith, whether or not excessive force was actually, or can be found to have been, used.
“We genuinely believe that most people [who file complaints] believe that something wrong happened,” she says. “There are a few [cases] where evidence has shown [people have] filed complaints for reasons other than believe that something wrong happened. But that’s such a small number […].”
While Dempsey says that all complaints against the LBPD are automatically reviewed by the CPCC, and vice versa, the fact that the CPCC investigated 251 complaints of excessive force over a two-year period, while the LBPD reports investigating only 167 such complaints during an overlapping three-year period, seems to indicate otherwise.
Dempsey declined to comment on whether she believes the LBPD is sufficiently self-scrutinizing when it comes to use of force, saying, “I don’t comment on the police department; I only comment on the CPCC and the work that we do.”
Earlier this month, the family of Jason Conoscenti filed a $10 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the City of Long Beach, claiming LBPD officers used excessive force when they shot to death the unarmed Conoscenti as he fled down the steps to the beach at 14th Place. LBPD officers say they mistook the stunbags deputies fired at Conoscenti as he began to flee toward the beach as gunshots fired by Conoscenti.
To those who feel the LBPD resorts to force more often or to a greater degree than necessary, the fact that the only weapons Conoscenti had been seen with were a pair of scissors (which he allegedly brandished when deputies confronted him at a Target store in Compton) and a stick that he held while sitting in his car in Long Beach before running toward the beach (by which point he had dropped it), the shooting is more grist for the mill that officers are guilty of excessive force more than the City admits.
Perhaps the vast majority of claims of police using excessive force are unfounded. The question is whether there are really fewer than one incident per year where officers employ more force than necessary, and whether 99 complaints out of 100 are unwarranted.