Head of LA's police commission on reform: 'You have to change hearts and minds'
by A Martínez and Dorian Merina
Matthew Johnson is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. Johnson was elected president of the commission in September 2015.Maya Sugarman/KPCC
From Chicago to South Carolina, New York to Cleveland, police shootings and questions of how and when officers use force are drawing increased scrutiny.
Here in L.A., it's a topic that we've been taking a close look at, as well. KPCC's investigation, Officer Involved, found that over a five-year period, from 2010 to 2014, at least 375 people were shot by on-duty officers from multiple agencies in Los Angeles County. To date, no officer has been prosecuted for the shootings.
L.A.'s police commission is one group that reviews and adjudicates such incidents. The commission is a civilian-led body that oversees the LAPD. It has five members who are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.
The Commission's new president Matthew Johnson, the board's only African American member, says he has two top goals for his new term: reducing crime and bringing down the number of police shootings. Take Two's A Martínez sat down with Johnson to talk about police reform, body cameras and the influence of racial bias.
And he started his conversation talking about his two top goals: reducing crime and bringing down the number of police shootings. Click the arrow above to hear the interview.
Highlights from the interview:
Through November 7, 2015, homicides in L.A. were up nearly 12 percent (11.7%) violent crimes were up over 20 percent (21%), compared to 2014. Has the department explained to you what the root of that increase is?
Frankly, no one really knows the answer. But let's put it in perspective: we are still at historic lows, even though we saw those rises in 2015 over 2014, we're still at historic lows. Should we be panicking? No. But should we be concerned? Absolutely. If you look at the crime figures from the first half of the year, we were seeing numbers that were way more significant in terms of increases than where we ended up. So a lot of the tactics that the [police] department has deployed to combat this rise in crime are showing that they're working.
Over the past five years, police in Los Angeles County have fatally shot black people at triple the rate of other races, such as white and Hispanic people. That’s according to our data at KPCC and the coroner’s reports on fatal police shootings. When you hear that number, what do you think?
It brings me back to why I agreed to take on this position in the first place. It's a huge problem, it keeps me up at night and it's why I'm sitting in this chair. The problem is exacerbated with the African American community, for sure, but we need to lower the number of officer-involved shootings across the board. One of the areas of training that we're spending a lot of focus on is anti-bias training because a lot of these issues are subconscious. We need to figure out ways to train our officers to recognize that bias. When they see an African American person doing something, they see a white person doing something, when they see an Hispanic, often times the same act is perceived differently – and that's a subconscious thing that's not necessarily a conscious thing – the goal of that training is to eliminate or at least help recognize where that bias could come into these situations.
In our reporting at Southern California Public Radio, we've also profiled officers who have taken great risk or faced dangerous conditions in order to perform their duty. How would you say police officers are doing in LA?
I've spent a lot of time with police officers since taking this position...and the consistent thing that I get is that they're doing this for the right reason. They're doing this for the same reason I'm on the police commission. They have a desire to help improve our society, to help make a difference. So it's very painful for them to be in this environment right now, where there's such distrust. And they want to change it.
In a year from now, or two years from now, what would you use as a gauge to say that things are turning out the way you want them to, that [these reforms] have been a success?
I've set very concrete goals. Do I think we'll be able to accomplish what I'm trying to accomplish in a year? I would like to say yes, but I think that's probably a little unrealistic. Within two years if we don't see a significant drop in use of force incidents, I will have considered my tenure a failure...You can't do it overnight, it's not just [sitting] someone in a classroom for three hours and they walk out and they're a changed person. We're talking about a significant amount of training that 10,000 officers have to go through.
Maryland panel recommends major changes to police practices
By Ovetta Wiggins
A Maryland legislative panel on Monday offered sweeping changes in police policies, including giving officers periodic psychological evaluations and allowing the public to attend police trial boards.
Under the proposed changes, residents would also be given more time to file brutality complaints.
The Public Safety and Policing Work Group voted to submit 21 recommendations to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) for the General Assembly to consider. It spent the past six months reviewing police practices and devising ways to improve police-community relations.
“It’s a very strong working package of proposals for reform,” said Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), a member of the panel.
As the national debate continues over the use of force by police officers, particularly against minorities, the recommendations send a strong signal that efforts to bolster criminal justice and police reforms will take place in Maryland during its 90-day legislative session.
Criminal justice reform advocates said they were pleased with many of the proposals, specific¬ally those that would create more transparency when police officers are accused of wrongdoing.
“It’s a really good first step, and we look forward to working with the General Assembly to strengthen it,” said Sara Love, the public policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
An official with the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police said the union will work with the legislature to ensure that police officers receive due process and are treated fairly. The union has concerns about the psychological evaluations, and a recommendation would change how quickly officers must cooperate with internal investigations.
The panel called for reducing the state’s “10-day rule,” which gives officers 10 days to get a lawyer before cooperating with an investigation, to five days.
“This is just the beginning of the process,” said Vince Canales, president of the state police union. “We know there are potential changes coming up in the legislative session.”
The panel’s recommendations are the third set of proposals from committees recently investigating criminal justice and policing issues in Maryland. A second committee made recommendations on the use of police body cameras, and a third recently submitted a 10-year, $247 million plan to reduce recidivism and the state’s prison population by focusing more on community-based programs.
The legislature’s focus on police reform this session will unfold as juries in Baltimore decide the fate of six officers who were arrested in connection with the death of Freddie Gray.
Gray, 25, died in April after his spine was severed while in police custody. His death sparked riots in Baltimore and renewed calls from criminal justice reform advocates for the state to review policing practices.
[Judge declares mistrial in case of officer charged in Freddie Gray death]
Busch and Miller created the panel after the unrest, hoping to repair the relationship between the police and the community, which is fraught with distrust.
“The workgroup heard from almost 100 witnesses and incorporated many recommendations from members of the public and law enforcement,” Busch and Miller said in a joint statement. “We believe these recommendations will make measurable progress in improving policing practices in Maryland.”
The panel was expected to finish its work in December, but it ran into trouble reaching a consensus on a number of issues, including mandatory psychological evaluations for officers.
Police officers are given evaluations before they join the force, but Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore), who was a ¬co-chairman of the panel, wanted routine psychological evaluations. Del. Curtis S. Anderson (D-Baltimore), who also served as co-chairman, said he thought officers should have to undergo regular evaluations, much like they have to requalify to be able to use their service weapons.
But the idea ran into resistance from the state police union.
“I think mental-health issues are a concern and something that should be addressed,” Pugh said.
After a lengthy debate Monday about whether psychological evaluations should be required every five years, the panel voted instead to require officers to receive them periodically and after “traumatic” incidents.
The panel also called for the creation of an independent Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission that would focus on setting standards and training for all police agencies.
Panel members said they repeatedly heard complaints about a lack of uniformity in standards in departments across the state.
The police training commission would also develop and require “anti-discrimination” and “use of force de-escalation” training for all officers. It would also set up a confidential early intervention policy for dealing with officers who receive three or more citizen complaints within a 12-month period.
The panel suggests that the commission require annual reporting of “serious” officer-involved incidents, the number of officers disciplined and the type of discipline that was given.
Other recommendations include developing a police complaint mediation program, creating recruitment standards that increase the number of female, African American and Hispanic candidates, and offering incentives, including property tax credits and state and local income tax deductions, to officers who live in the jurisdictions where they work.
Ovetta Wiggins covers Maryland state politics in Annapolis.
At State of the Union, Seattle held up as model for police reform
by David Kroman
President Barack Obama addresses a joint session of U.S. Congress. Credit: Lawrence Jackson
When President Obama gives his final State of the Union address tonight, a select group of people will join his wife Michelle as a living illustration of his agenda during his final year in office. The tilt will be toward social justice: a voice on criminal justice reform, an advocate for homeless veterans, a Syrian refugee, an opioid reform advocate, an empty seat for victims of gun violence.
Joining them will be Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, Obama’s choice as the face of federally driven reform in a major city’s police department. Specifically, the Obama administration has singled out O’Toole for her work with “community policing” — i.e. walking the street more, attending meetings, getting to know community members — and body cameras, which are meant to quickly answer questions surrounding police interactions, and altercations, with people on the street.
These tools, along with Department of Justice investigations into the practices of police departments, have been important parts of Obama’s answer to the deaths of young black men in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland and others. Seattle is further along this road than most, and success here would show that there’s hope for success elsewhere.
But while O’Toole has won praise in both Washingtons, her department is still very much in the thick of reform. A seat near Michelle Obama tonight, some believe, may be a little premature.
When O’Toole arrived in Seattle in 2014, she inherited a police department waist deep in federally mandated reforms. Those reforms were spurred by a Justice department investigation that grew out of the shooting of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams in 2010. SPD officer Ian Birk shot Williams in the back when he refused to drop a knife he was carrying — a tool of his trade. Williams was hard of hearing. The department later paid Williams’ family $1.5 million after the shooting was ruled unjustified.
That was before the police killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and Laquan McDonald — men who are now household names across the country — put the issue in the national spotlight.
Mayor Ed Murray hired O’Toole, a former Boston Police Commissioner, specifically to oversee the reforms. Within six months of her hiring, she replaced the department’s top brass with two outsiders and a lieutenant. This, after 35 years of hiring from the rank of Captain within the department. The Seattle Police Management Association, the union representing captains and lieutenants, threatened an unfair labor practice claim, but she managed to negotiate a deal to provide internal leadership training and the claim was dropped.
Months later, O’Toole was the only high-ranking public official to offer support to the concerns of the Community Police Commission, the civilian component of the DOJ’s mandated police reforms, regarding management of protests and demonstrations. This, for many, was a sign that she recognized what was important to the people of Seattle, not just the powers that be within her department.
And last August, O’Toole bucked the opposition of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, the rank-and-file union, and fired officer Cynthia Whitlach for her treatment of 67-year-old William Wingate, an African American man the officer said swung a golf club at her. (Dash-cam video shows otherwise. Whitlach, who made racially charged statements on social media, claimed she was the victim of a sort of reverse racism.) O’Toole specifically cited language regarding de-escalation and biased policing that had been added to department guidelines since the beginning of Seattle’s settlement agreement with the feds. It was a reminder that she was committed to reform.
Since O’Toole took over the department, the DOJ’s police monitor, Merrick J. Bobb, has given her increasingly positive reviews. Last June, he praised the SPD’s progress on de-escalation training, data collection, crisis intervention and transparency. In more recent reviews, he’s lauded members of the department for more consistently reporting use of force to higher-ups.
“Especially given that, between 2009 and 2011, only 0.04 percent of cases received any significant chain of command scrutiny whatsoever,” Bobb wrote, “it is a praiseworthy advance in accountability that SPD … has become far more comfortable with critically analyzing and scrutinizing officer use of force and holding officers accountable for their performance during incidents involving force.”
During a stop on her six-city “community policing” tour last September, Attorney General Loretta Lynch hailed the Seattle Police Department’s efforts as a national example. Indeed, several major cities, including New York, have sent delegations to Seattle to learn from the city’s progress. SPD’s work regarding an early intervention system — a data-driven approach to catch problems with officers before they balloon — is being closely watched locally and nationally.
O’Toole is hard not to like. She’s got a subtle Boston accent and seems to keep her chin up at all times, literally holding her head high and back straight. A police chief’s got to eat a lot of criticism and she eats it well. She knows many of the most vocal anti-police voices in the city by name and addresses them as such. In the face of flurried questions from the media, sometimes thinly veiled accusations, she never flusters.
Even amid Lynch’s praise for the city and department as a whole, it was O’Toole who seemed to get the most glowing reviews, almost certainly a precursor to her invitation to D.C. today.
Still, O’Toole is not immune to controversy. Community members criticized her for giving too light a punishment to the officer who pepper sprayed a local high school teacher at a Black Lives Matter demonstration last Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The police unions claim she maintains an excess of captains while the department lacks for rank-and-file officers. And there is still clearly tension surrounding the fact that she went outside the department to hire her assistant chiefs.
O’Toole has also reportedly still not moved her family to Seattle, renting a home here while maintaining a place back in Boston. Some say it wouldn’t be a surprise if she were gone by next New Year’s Eve.
In the end, though, it’s not these things that worry community activists, but concern over what they see as a premature celebration of what the department has accomplished. In November, nearly 50 community groups, many of which were original signers on the first letter asking the DOJ to intervene in Seattle, mounted something of a mutiny against the police monitor and Federal Judge James Robart, who is overseeing the reform, for not advancing legislation that would make some reforms permanent.
Both Robart and Bobb have maintained that legislation codifying changes to the department ought to be considered carefully and advanced, if necessary, slowly. Mayor Murray has agreed. The result, say community advocates, is that O’Toole may be the only thing holding the reforms together. Were she to leave, the progress could crumble.
Among other concerns are whether the department’s neighborhood-level, “micro-community policing plans” are actually being put to use, and whether the city can realistically deploy body cameras and answer questions of privacy at the same time. When Mayor Murray introduced money for full deployment of body cameras in his budget, the results of the department’s pilot program — which is specifically referenced in a statement about O’Toole by the White House — were still being reviewed. They have still not yet translated into broader policy.
Meanwhile, community groups continue to say they haven’t gotten a fair hearing. During her visit to Seattle, Attorney General Lynch told reporters she was hearing positive things from the community about its relationship with the department. Members of the Community Police Commission, however, say they never actually got the opportunity to express their concerns to Lynch. “We need an honest discussion,” said Reverend Aaron Williams, a CPC member. “This was a lot of patting on the back.”
The department has made progress, and O’Toole is mostly well-liked — these things are true. And the DOJ intervention could very well lead to exactly the reform everyone hoped to see. But the work is not done yet, and if Obama suggests in his speech tonight that it is, some heads will shake in Seattle.
David Kroman is the city reporter for Crosscut. A Bainbridge Island native, David has also worked as a teacher, winery cellar hand, shellfish farmer and program director of a small non-profit. His Twitter is @KromanDavid and his e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.