LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – Three violent altercations caught on tape involving Los Angeles Police Department officers have rekindled the long-running debate about LAPD use-of-force and are shaping up to be a significant test for Chief Charlie Beck.
All three incidents occurred during seemingly routine calls that inexplicably turned violent. Several weeks ago, a cellphone video showed four police officers tackling a 20-year-old Venice skateboarder whom they said was resisting arrest. One officer struck him in the face.
Then this week, videotape emerged in which two LAPD officers were shown slamming a handcuffed woman to the ground in the San Fernando Valley before appearing to give themselves fist bumps. The woman, a nurse who was pulled over for holding a cellphone while driving, suffered bruises to her face and body.
But the most serious incident came to light late Thursday, when LAPD officials revealed that a woman had died during a confrontation in July outside her South L.A. home. Police said the woman had come to a police station to drop off her children because she said she could not take care of them. Police returned to her house to arrest her on suspicion of child endangerment.
“Each incident is disturbing,” said Police Commission member Richard E. Drooyan on Friday. “In each of these cases, we are talking about different places in the department with different races and genders involved.”
Beck spent Thursday night going across the city and talking to officers about the incidents.
“I was in the field last night and visited half a dozen police stations,” he said. “I looked hundreds of police officers in the eye as I discussed their responsibilities. I have faith in them.”
Beck said all the cases were under investigation but stressed that he does not believe they point to a larger systemic problem within the department.
“I am very concerned about several of these incidents. I am not concerned about the overall quality or character of the Los Angeles Police Department,” he said. “There are 10,000 LAPD officers who do a phenomenal job in very difficult circumstances every day. We have literally over a million enforcement contacts a year. Some of them don’t go that well, and there’s a variety of reasons.”
Accusations of excessive force – particularly those caught on tape – have been a major issue at the LAPD dating back to the 1992 beating of Rodney King and including the 2007 May Day melee at MacArthur Park in which officers used force on protesters as well as some journalists.
Drooyan said he wanted the commission to look at the three new cases to determine whether there were any patterns or “cultural issues” within the department that needed to be addressed.
“We’ve had a relatively calm period since I came on the commission two and half years ago, and I have seen nothing to suggest a cultural issue,” he added.
Connie Rice, a longtime L.A. civil rights attorney and LAPD watchdog, said the key thing to watch now is how the department investigates the cases.
“For me, it’s never that the incidents happen, it’s the response to the incident,” Rice said. “It’s endemic to policing that there are violent confrontations. For the LAPD, the old default was excessive use of force. The question is how far they are in their transformation away from excessive force being the norm: Do I see movement away from that? Yes, at the top they’ve definitely changed. Do we still have a long way to go, oh yeah.”
Rice said she has faith that Beck will take the incidents seriously. “There’s a real investigation…. It would be the opposite 25 years ago. There would be no investigations, there would be exonerations.”