In a unanimous decision Tuesday, the Los Angeles Police Commission revised its policy so it must consider police officers’ actions leading up to a police shooting in evaluating whether the officer’s use of force was justified.
The single sentence added to the policy is a subtle but potentially meaningful change in police oversight. Prompted by a Supreme Court decision, the revision creates legal standards that shift more responsibility to officers. “The clarification is significant,” Commissioner Robert Saltzman told the Los Angeles Times. “Some have interpreted our current policy to suggest the commission should ignore all the officer’s pre-force activity, no matter how relevant those earlier actions are.”
The current process looks at whether the officer was at fault by looking at three areas — the officer’s actions beforehand, when he drew his weapon, and the shooting. The LA Times reported that Police Chief Charlie Beck adhered closely to the policy, “drawing a stark line between the use of deadly force and what the officer did beforehand.”
One situation the policy could have impacted was the shooting of a mentally ill woman in 2011. A panel determined the shooting was “justified,” even though the officers were criticized for not waiting for mental health experts to assist before entering her home and for not restraining the woman in handcuffs.
In LA, 43 officer-involved shootings in a year is about average. Last year’s included a manhunt that led officers to fire more than 100 shots into a truck that had two innocent women inside. The eight officers involved have all returned to duty, following additional field training. In another instance in December, LA police officers shot and killed an unarmed mentally ill man after he exited with his hands raised post-car chase.
The commission report maintained that such mistakes are rare “where officers’ pre-shooting conduct precipitates a shooting that is negligent under California law. Likewise, there may be incidents where an officer’s pre-shooting conduct supports the reasonableness of a subsequent decision to use deadly force.”
National data on the use of excessive deadly force is sparse, but studies suggest officers are rarely punished for their actions. New Mexico law enforcement recently instituted a training that gives officers greater leeway to shoot in public areas like traffic stops.