Crime & Justice

Ezell Ford: Ruling, reaction to police shooting shows why LA isn't Ferguson

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti takes questions from the media about the Police Commission's ruling on the Ezell Ford shooting during a news conference in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 9, 2015. The Los Angeles Police Commission has found that one officer acted within policy but the other violated it in the fatal close-range shooting shooting death of Ezell Ford last year. (AP Photo/Tami Abdollah)
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti takes questions from the media about the Police Commission's ruling on the Ezell Ford shooting during a news conference in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 9, 2015. The Los Angeles Police Commission has found that one officer acted within policy but the other violated it in the fatal close-range shooting shooting death of Ezell Ford last year. (AP Photo/Tami Abdollah)
Tami Abdollah/AP
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti takes questions from the media about the Police Commission's ruling on the Ezell Ford shooting during a news conference in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 9, 2015. The Los Angeles Police Commission has found that one officer acted within policy but the other violated it in the fatal close-range shooting shooting death of Ezell Ford last year. (AP Photo/Tami Abdollah)
FILE - In this Dec. 30, 2014, file photo, a street side memorial with a painted portrait of Ezell Ford near where he was shot when police confronted him on Aug. 11, 2014, is shown on a street near his home in South Los Angeles. The Los Angeles police chief and his department’s independent watchdog have found that a fatal close-range shooting of a 25-year-old black man by officers last year was justified, a department source said Friday nigh, June 5, 2015t. However, the findings by Chief Charlie Beck and the inspector general are only recommendations to the Police Commission, which will determine after a hearing next week whether the shooting of Ezell Ford was within department policy (AP Photo/Raquel Maria Dillon, File)
Raquel Maria Dillon/AP
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti takes questions from the media about the Police Commission's ruling on the Ezell Ford shooting during a news conference in Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 9, 2015. The Los Angeles Police Commission has found that one officer acted within policy but the other violated it in the fatal close-range shooting shooting death of Ezell Ford last year. (AP Photo/Tami Abdollah)
Protesters camp outside the home of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Monday June 8, 2015. They have vowed to remain there through Tuesday, when the Police Commission will receive findings on the shooting of Ezell Ford.
Toni Guinyard/KNBC-TV


Two days after Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, Mo., another young unarmed African-American man, Ezell Ford, was killed by police in Los Angeles. It sparked protests, but they paled in comparison to those in Ferguson.

On Tuesday in Los Angeles, the civilian panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department issued a surprising ruling that one of the officers acted outside department policy.

While it didn't satisfy everyone, neither was it the complete vindication that police sought, nor did it spark the kinds of at-time violent protests that have erupted in the wake of similar incidents in cities from Ferguson to Cleveland to Baltimore.

The police commission's ruling has also put the spotlight back on the efforts of a department that has struggled to overcome a legacy of questionable tactics and poor community relations.

The decision by the five-member panel came in a closed-door session and followed a raucous public comment meeting in which L.A. police commissioners found themselves shouting to be heard over chants of "black lives matter."

Back in August, two LAPD officers shot Ford in South L.A. as they were trying to question him on the street. Chief Charlie Beck – and the department's inspector general – deemed the shooting justified, mainly because there was evidence Ford grabbed for one of their guns.

But in a rare rebuke, the civilian panel found that one cop – the one who got into a physical altercation with Ford — failed to follow a range of LAPD policies, and never should have fired his gun. 

Joe Domanick, who works at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told KPCC's Take Two that the commission's ruling came from observing "the totality of the incident."

"And the totality of the incident was that the police didn't have a right to stop Ford in the first place. This I think is really ground-breaking and really goes to the heart of 'Stop and Frisk,'" Domanick said.

Shamell Bell, a Los Angeles doctoral student, said she was stunned by the outcome.

"You know, I expected them not to do the right thing. And I am getting choked up by it," Bell said.

National debate over policing

The Ezell Ford case has become L.A.'s symbol of the national debate over policing. He was black, he was unarmed, he was poor – and he had a mental illness. His mother said the 25-year-old Ford often roamed the streets, but was harmless. She had pleaded with the panel to condemn his actions.

"Today's decision shows that the justice system, if run by decent and honest people, will find the right answers. I ask that everyone maintain calm and make sure that this important message will not be lost in a sea of anger and violence," Ford said.

The streets of Los Angeles were quiet Tuesday night.

It's been 50 years since the Watts riots and fewer than 25 years since the L.A. riots of '92. Some see the relative calm in the Ford case as a sign the department's efforts to engage with the community and become more transparent may be helping to ease tensions and keep the public dialogue open.

"So here in Los Angeles, I felt that in the last decade, and I think even more, there's been more engagement. The LAPD has been very willing to entertain the public or connect with the public in a way that we haven't seen in a long time," Francisco Ortega, senior policy analyst for L.A.'s Human Relations Commission, told KPCC's AirTalk.

After Ford was shot in August of last year, the department showed  real movement in terms of engaging community stakeholders to address community-police relations, Ortega said. "And I think that the department is doing a fantastic job. Now, has it done enough in terms of really connecting the dots? That is still to be determined," he said.

Nana Gyamfi, a human rights lawyer based in Los Angeles, saw it differently.

In the past 10 years, she said, the community definitely has not seen itself as partnering with police. She said she thinks we "paint too rosy a picture" of the relationship between the black community and LAPD.

"And it's almost like, you know, the images of the cop hugging the child playing basketball is what people are feeling on the ground," Gyamfi said, speaking on AirTalk. As an attorney working on police crimes cases in Los Angeles for 24 years, "that's not what I'm hearing. That's not what I'm seeing," she said.

A question of discipline and transparency

What happens next could well be a test for the department.

While the commission decides whether a shooting is justified, the chief decides on any discipline, and Beck believes the officers acted within policy.

"I think now it places the chief in a very difficult situation in that he has to administer discipline on an officer whose shooting he does not personally seem to believe violated department policy. So he's clearly in a pickle at the moment," Jim Newton, editor of the Blueprint, a new magazine for California, told AirTalk.

Complicating matters, the exact nature of the discipline is protected information and may very well remain secret.

"I think this is an opportunity for the department to be as open as it can be in a circumstance like this," said Newton, who covered the LAPD for the Los Angeles Times from 1992 to 1997.

Activist Shamell Bell said she won't be satisfied until the chief metes out strong discipline.

"What we should have heard is that the officers are guilty and that they need to be fired. And so if you have not heard that, then justice has not been done," Bell said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti would not comment on what should happen to the officers. Instead, he said the systems put in place during years of reform are working.

"Nobody is above the law. Everybody can make mistakes. And we have seen accountability in this city," Garcetti said.

Newton said Chief Beck's next step is critical.

"We don't know what the chief's analysis of this is. But what I would hope is that he's able to and willing to provide some public explanation for whatever decision he reaches, so that not only will the officer be held accountable, but so the chief himself will be held accountable to [the community]," Newton said.

In a separate investigation, the L.A. County District Attorney, as it does with all shootings, is in the process of deciding whether to file criminal charges against the officers.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote from Shamell Bell. KPCC regrets the error.