Crime & Justice

LA Police Commission recommendations emphasize avoiding the use of deadly force

Matthew Johnson is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. Johnson was elected president of the commission in September 2015.
Matthew Johnson is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. Johnson was elected president of the commission in September 2015.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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In a move that's already provoking contention among police experts, two Los Angeles police commissioners Friday called for changes to policies on when LAPD officers should use deadly force.

Their recommendations, which call for police to shoot to kill only "when reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or appear impracticable,"  go before the full Police Commission on Tuesday. 

If passed, the recommendations by Commission President Matt Johnson and Commissioner Robert Saltzman would change how police are trained to use deadly force in Los Angeles, as well as the way incidents like officer-involved shootings are investigated and evaluated.

When determining whether an officer-involved shooting is in policy, commissioners operating under the proposed policy changes would look at whether officers tried other means to diffuse the situation. 

“Currently, there is no specific evaluation of whether deescalation was feasible and whether the officer’s actions in fact tried to deescalate the situation," Johnson told KPCC Friday. "These recommendations are really to embed the importance of deescalation throughout all facets of the organization."

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, in a statement, said he and the department "look forward to further incorporating these preservation of life principles in our constantly evolving training standards and policies." The chief also noted the department has been teaching deescalation to its officers for years. 

LAPD, one of the largest police forces in the country, has the potential to set the tone for what constitutes acceptable force by police departments nationwide, Johnson said.

But some see the proposal as impractical. 

"These recommendations give me great pause," said David Klinger, professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis. "I'm concerned about the immediate effect on public safety in Los Angeles."

Klinger, a former LAPD officer, said officers would be less willing to take risks to protect the public, like getting into foot pursuits, for fear of getting into a shooting and having their every action judged in hindsight by a panel. 

"The commission doesn't understand human nature," Klinger said. 

But Johnson said something needs to change. 

"The use of deadly force should always be a last resort," he said. "We're not asking (officers) to endanger their lives, but if these strategies are implemented correctly, it should keep both our officers and the community safer."

The proposal comes on the heels of a KPCC investigation into officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County over a five-year period. KPCC found that one in four people shot by police between 2010-2014 were unarmed. 

An LAPD report released last week showed a dramatic increase in the number of people shot by LAPD officers who showed sings of mental illness in 2015. 

Johnson said many of those shot were homeless. 

One of the aims of his and Saltzman's proposal is to ensure that officers working with the homeless have proper tools for dealing with that population. 

"Specifically officers that work in Skid Row, that they have specialized training for dealing with those communities before engaging in any enforcement action," Johnson said. 

The proposal, if adopted, would also require LAPD to notify commissioners of any changes to training of officers regarding mental health, use of force, and de-escalation. 

This story has been updated.