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LAPD Ezell Ford shooting prompted changes, though incident remains hotly debated

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A portrait of Ezell Ford, killed by LAPD officers in August near this spot, is on the wall of a market at 65th Street and Broadway in South Los Angeles
Sharon McNary/KPCC
A portrait of Ezell Ford, killed by LAPD officers in August near this spot, is on the wall of a market at 65th Street and Broadway in South Los Angeles

While Chief Charlie Beck and many in the rank and file say the shooting of Ezell Ford was justified, police leaders recognized the uproar over it and shootings across the country demanded a response.

With the Los Angeles City Council’s decision to pay the family of Ezell Ford $1.5 million this week, another chapter closed on one the most controversial shootings in recent city history. The only remaining question is whether Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas will be disciplined by Chief Charlie Beck.

His decision, unless leaked to the media, is supposed to remain confidential under a broad ranging state law that is designed to protect law enforcement officers called the Peace Officers Bill of Rights. Last year, they sued the city alleging racial bias because they have remained on desk duty since the shooting. They said if Ford, who was black, had been another race, the department would have put them back on the streets.

While they remained on desk duty for at least two years, Beck defended their actions in an opinion to the Los Angeles Police Commission, the five member civilian body that oversees the LAPD. He pointed out there was DNA evidence that strongly supported Wampler’s claim that Ford, 25, was trying to grab his gun and that he was in a fight for his life. The commission overruled I'm, saying the shooting should not have occurred because the officers’ lacked reasonable suspicion to try to detail Ford.

It was a controversial decision that the LA Police Protective League – the union that represents rank and file cops – strongly denounced. It’s since called this commission, which has changed membership but pushed for reforms – anti-cop.

Councilman Joe Buscaino, once a full-time LAPD officer and now a reserve officer, called the officer's actions "righteous."

(It should be noted the District Attorney said the officers had reasonable suspicion to detain Ford, who officers said was walking away from a group of gang members in an area where drugs are sold and quicken his pace when officers tried to stop him. He end up crouching in a driveway as if to hide, said the officers.)

Both Wampler and Villegas shot Ford to death in the Summer of 2014 – just two days after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Because of its proximity to that shooting, the killing of Ford became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement in Los Angeles. It was another example, leaders said, of LAPD officers caring little for the life of a black man.

While Beck and police union leaders called the shooting justified, it and the national uproar over policing prompted a series of changes at the department. In a rare move, the department required all nearly 10,000 cops to go through a ten-hour training that focused on four areas:

  •  Building public trust by partnering with the community and recognizing your own implicit racial biases on the streets.
  • Use of force and de-escalation techniques, including taking cover and creating distance from suspects to buy time to talk to them and call for back-up.
  • How best to identify and approach mentally ill people.
  • Basic laws of arrest, including reasonable suspicion and probable cause. 

De-escalation was always taught, but its emphasized more now, said Dr. Luann Pannell, a psychologist who is director of training and education at the LAPD’s academy. “De-escalation can come in many forms – its not always just slowing things down. Sometimes, its best to move in on a person quickly to end a situation before it escalates.”

The department wrote a new training directive on de-escalation that covers all the techniques, starting with officers discussing how to approach a situation as they are on their way to a radio call.

Instructors also told rank and file officers to be prepared to take no for an answer when they approached somebody to ask them questions and they don’t want to talk. If the officers don’t have reasonable suspicion a crime has been committed, the should not pursue the person.

It’s hard for law enforcement officers who are trained to take control of a situation to slow things down and sometimes walk away.

“We have close to ten-thousand officers,” said Pannell. “Even when incidents occur, it’s hard to implement training that will turn the department on a dime.”

The department is adding a mandatory training refreshing constitutional policing principals and other skills about a year after cops are first on the streets and also plan to add other training during their first five years on the job. Its bought more Tasers so that every officer will have one – thought they are not required to wear it.

In addition, Beck created a new Community Relationship Division to provide opportunities for officers to have positive interactions with residents. “The best antidote to implicit bias is contact theory,” said Pannell. You don’t want all your contacts with residents to be negative.

Beck also created a “Preservation of Life” Award for officers who could have used deadly force but avoided it. The police union called it dangerous because officers might hesitate when they are facing a life-threatening situation.

The police commission, led for the past 18 months by attorney Matthew Johnson, managing partner of the powerful entertainment law firm Ziffren Brittenham, also has pushed for changes.

  • In December, it held a four hour meeting focused on implicit bias and pushed Beck to do more to train officers to be aware of it.
  • The commission has asked for a new shooting policy that includes a mandate officers try to de-escalate situations before firing, if possible.
  • The panel has ordered the department to put officers through more scenario based training to reemphasize how to approach residents without resorting to force.
  • And the civilian board has asked the department to draw up a policy that would get more information to the public more quickly after a shooting.

Department brass are in the process of coming up with these policies - brought on by intense protests across the country and in Los Angeles.

In addition, the commission plans to hold a series of public meetings asking people to weigh in on when they think video from body worn cameras, dashboard cameras, and security surveillance video should be released to the public. It’s a reversal from when the panel accepted Beck’s recommendation that video never be released unless in extreme circumstances where a shooting provoke riots.

Again, the police union opposes any change, arguing releasing video could compromise officers’ and residents’ privacy and jeopardize investigations.

There remains at the department a level of tension between the union and the commission, and sometimes between the chief and the commission, as different reform agendas move forward.

While the chief has gone along with and initiated a number of changes, he also dramatically expanded the Metropolitan Division doubling its ranks to nearly 500.

These are highly trained officers who don’t answer radio calls but ride around in unmarked cars looking for suspicion activist.

They often are good spotting bad guys – metro units deployed to South LA to stop a crime spike seized more than 300 guns off the streets during one recent six-month period. But they do little community policing.

“Law enforcement has many obligations,” said Captain Andrew Neiman, a spokesman for the department. “We are pulled in many directions and it’s a delicate balance.”

Activists have argued for more efforts like the Community Safety Partnership programs - where officers stay in housing projects in Watts and elsewhere for five years and are rewarded for building relationships and preventing crime. Its called relationship policing. If there had been something like that in the neighborhood where Ford was shot, the argument goes, the officers may have known him, may have been aware he was bipolar, and handled him differently.

LAPD officials say they don’t have the resources to do what they do in Watts across the nearly 503 square miles of Los Angeles.

“We have to police from vehicles most of the time,” said Neiman.

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