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LA Police Commission votes to revisit rules on use of force

Matthew Johnson is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. Johnson was elected president of the commission in September 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Matthew Johnson is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. Johnson was elected president of the commission in September 2015.

The Los Angeles Police Commission Tuesday voted to revisit the rules for when Los Angeles officers use deadly force, placing increased emphasis on de-escalating potentially violent situations.  

The five-member commission unanimously approved moving forward on a dozen recommendationsthat deal with how LAPD trains its officers and how department leadership evaluates their actions when they're involved in a shooting or other violent incident.

"Changes to policy are not done lightly or often so the intention is to build something that will work not just for today, but going forward," said Police Commission President Matt Johnson at Tuesday's meeting. 

Johnson, along with Commissioner Robert Saltzman authored the recommendations, which are a skeleton framework for policy changes the commission, LAPD officials, and the Inspector General will hash out in the coming weeks.

Commissioners indicated that three of the most controversial recommendations will be amended as those talks go on. Those items deal with determining whether an officer's use of force was reasonable, whether they used deadly force only as a last option, and limiting the use of rifles and slug ammunition. 

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said he supported revisiting the use-of-force policy, but cautioned against creating policies that might put police officers at risk.

"I understand what the commission wants to do--they want to emphasize some of the things that the police department is doing to minimize use of force," Beck said. "And one of those things is deescalation."

"We're not asking (officers) to endanger their lives, but if these strategies are implemented correctly, it should keep both our officers and the community safer," Johnson said. 

But the rank-and-file may not see it that way. 

"If an officer is killed as a result of this use of force policy, their blood will be on your hands," said Jamie McBride, an official with the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing LAPD officers. 

Union officials at Tuesday's meeting said the  changes might make officers overly hesitant in a dangerous situation. And that current policies are already firmly grounded in federal law.

Activists, however, said the rules don't go far enough. 

"These recommendations are only a start to reducing force," said Catherine Wagner with the ACLU of Southern California. 

Policing experts disagree on how the changes might impact public safety. 

David Klinger, professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis said he's concerned officers might avoid intervening in dangerous situations for fear of having their actions judged. 

On the other hand, Michael Gennaco, of the Officer of Independent Review, a private agency hired by law enforcement departments to provide oversight, said he found the recommendations interesting. 

“We’re not suggesting to run away or avoid apprehension of individuals who need to be stopped and detained," he told KPCC's Airtalk. "Do it in a safer way, get help, call for backup, set up a containment of perimeter, get the helicopter up and do things that are safer to the officers, but will still result in arrest of the individual."

The recommendations come on the heels of a KPCC investigation into officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County over a five-year period. KPCC found that one in four people shot by police between 2010-2014 were unarmed. 

An LAPD reportreleased this month showed a dramatic increase in the number of people shot by LAPD officers who showed sings of mental illness in 2015. 

Johnson said the recommendations are aimed at reducing those types of incidents. 

He said within two years, if there is not a significant drop in use of force incidents, he will consider his tenure as commission president a failure.