Back in 1989, when a TV camera crew filmed Long Beach police officers smashing a compliant suspect—allegedly guilty of no more than a traffic infraction—into a plate-glass window, the Long Beach Police Department had a reputation in some circles for excessive force.
Several events in recent years have reopened a raging debate about whether there is excessive force department-wide. In April, for example, a jury awarded $6.5 million to the family of Doug Zerby, who in 2010 was gunned down by police while sitting on a stoop holding only a water nozzle. Over the last few years LBPD officers have frequently employed battering rams and wielded assault rifles while conducting raids of medpot dispensaries. During one such raid an LBPD officer was caught on camera stepping on the neck of a compliant, face-down suspect—video that surfaced despite officers’ smashing security cameras and attempting to confiscate the dispensary’s recording devices.
The question of excessive force has loomed larger still in 2013, with the number of officer-involved shootings doubling over 2012, including multiple shootings of suspects who turned out to be unarmed. It’s a year that has also played host to multiple videos depicting LBPD officers engaging in what many consider excessive uses of non-lethal force.
Keeping all of this in mind, posing the question is obvious. The answer, however, is not necessarily easy to find.
One place you almost certainly won’t find the answer is from the LBPD itself. As a rule, police departments more or less automatically justify everything their officers do. A clear example of such practice occurred in early September, just days after officers were recorded beating Porforio Santos-Lopez seemingly beyond what was necessary to take him into custody. Despite Chief Jim McDonnell’s admission that the video was “disturbing” and that “each action of the officers [would] be evaluated fully,” Sgt. Aaron Eaton, one of the Department’s public information officer, was already making statements supporting the officers’ actions.
Later that month, McDonnell attempted to get out ahead of the elephant-in-the-room that was 2013’s spike in officer-involved shootings.
“Some people have asked, ‘How come there were three shootings in one week?'” he asked rhetorically, referring to the three officer-involved shootings that precipitated his press conference. “But that’s not something we control. It’s something circumstances control and the suspects on the street control. […] You get your up and down years.”
McDonnell is not wrong, at least not entirely. Because officer-involved shootings—like murders—are statistically rare, a fluctuation such as “doubled in 2013 over 2012” may simply be an aberration, attributable solely to happenstance and in no way reflecting a change in or problem with the practices of officers on the street.
But as Eaton himself told KTLA-TV recently, “Anytime you have use of force, it just doesn’t look good. But we really have to just look at the context of what the officers were engaged [in] at that point.”
Eaton’s comments came in the wake of video that surfaced last week of officers beating an 18-year-old suspect beyond what many feel was necessary in order to take him into custody. A link to the video was e-mailed to me shortly after it was posted to YouTube. “It will make you sick [seeing] what these LBPD [officers] do,” said the sender. By the next day there was a blog post promulgating the video. ” These “men” are nothing more than mafioso thugs with tiny hearts and minds, that have yet to see and understand a damn thing correctly,” wrote the blogger, referring to the officers. ” We cannot let them keep doing this to our kids.”
An unbiased look at the videos—a second angle surfaced a day later—should result in an honest admission that it is difficult to ascertain what happened prior to police grappling with the youth; and that he does appear to be resisting initially. But speaking with equal honesty, it’s difficult to see why the officers needed to use as much force as they did to take him into custody.
The truth may be debatable, but there can be no doubting an increased belief on the streets that LBPD officers are using excessive force. Directly motivated by last week’s killing of unarmed Tyler Woods, the 20th person shot by LBPD officers this year, on Sunday approximately 50 protestors marched on West Division headquarters with that message. And if the LBPD cares to cast about online for public opinion, they won’t have to look hard to find out that those 50 people are far from alone.
There is a certain percentage of the populous that will never give the police a fair shake, that will rave about the injustice of every officer-involved shooting, every tazing, every time a billy club is swung. “ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS,” read a bit of graffiti I saw recently on a bathroom wall. That is simply silly. Police are charged with protecting and serving, a duty that includes defending themselves. Unfortunately, sometimes that means using force, even deadly force. And in the making of those often split-second decisions, honest mistakes may be made.
But when the LBPD’s main public-information officer is justifying a use of force before the completion of an internal investigation, and when the chief is prematurely linking the spike in officer-involved shootings to “an increased population of people on the street who previously would have been in custody” (as McDonnell did at his September 30 press conference), many of us who don’t presume police are necessarily at fault when they resort to force can’t help wondering whether our police department is genuinely interested in examining itself to see whether there might indeed be a problem.
Not all cops are bastards. But some may be. And while not all police departments have systemic problems in regards to the use of force, some may. Presuming the Long Beach Police Department wants to minimize excessive force department-wide, along with convincing the public that it is in earnest about doing so, it is an open question as to whether the status quo is the best way to go about it.