KPCC recently published the results of a lengthy investigation into officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County, to give the public a better sense of who cops are shooting at and how often.
The information, based on hundreds of reports from the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office, is now available online.
The data shows that between 2010 and 2014, L.A. County law enforcement shot 375 people, a quarter of whom were unarmed.
Though blacks account for just 8 percent of the county's population, the investigation revealed that they made up 24 percent of fatal shootings.
The data is not readily available to the public. KPCC reporters read and evaluated hundreds of district attorney letters spanning five years, along with records from the medical examiner and elsewhere. You can see a detailed explanation of how the data was collected here.
Take Two talked to three individuals charged with overseeing Los Angeles County law enforcement and asked them why it's so difficult for the public to see this information. We've transcribed some of their discussion below. Hear the full segment by clicking the play button above.
Merrick Bobb, founder of the Police Assessment Resource Center, oversaw the L.A. Sheriff's Department for more than 20 years. He said KPCC’s findings raise a number of questions about context.
“There is a need to dig and mine the data to figure out exactly what’s happening and why. Who is doing the shooting? Are there repeat shooters? What kinds of crimes are involved? And what can we say about policing a heavily urban environment, versus a lot of Los Angeles County which is a lot more suburb?” he asked.
When asked about the lack of transparency, Alex Bustamante, Inspector General of the Los Angeles Police Department, told Alex Cohen that the answer is complicated.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘transparent’ unless you qualified it,” Bustamante said. “Some of the information, whether it’s in a use of force, let’s say an officer involved shooting when you have community members who want additional information, some of that information cannot be disclosed in the way, or the manner, or even the timing that they want because of some of the rules that are established by the State of California,” he added.
For example, incident files are sealed during an ongoing investigation.
“You’re going to have personnel related matters, you’re going to have an ongoing investigation where people are still looking at scientific evidence, still interviewing witnesses, still trying to find out if there're other witnesses … so that’s what’s going to be the impediment for the disclosure,” Bustamante said.
Families seeking more information about the shooting death of a loved one often have to go to court just to have a chance to view sealed files. When it comes to opening police records, the decision is made on a case-by-case basis, Bustamante and Bobb said.
Bobb told Take Two that police unions in California lobbied Sacramento “very hard” to restrict access to information. It’s unlikely that the public will be given greater access to department files anytime soon. Because of this, information seekers will have to continue to depend on the District Attorney's Office to investigate every shooting.
Max Huntsman, Inspector General for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, acknowledges that the public has little faith in DA oversight, telling Take Two that people “accept and they know that the police are going to hunt gang members who are threatening them with guns, but they don’t accept that they’re going to hunt their own in the same way when it’s appropriate.”
But Huntsman says that there may be a way to make the process more transparent.
“When it comes to the ability to look into an agency and really make sure that they are doing a good job within themselves — in terms of investigations — that’s something where an inspector general or another form of civilian oversight can serve a very important role, even when that information doesn’t go out to the public."
In the wake of high profile officer-involved shootings in 2014, calls for greater transparency have led to a closer look at the use of body cameras. Los Angeles Police Department started its roll-out of body cameras in September of this year. The city plans to issue 7,000 devices to officers.
"I think it's a game changer," said Bustamante. "I think it will be instrumental in identifying training and what needs to be done by departments to improve on their policing models."
Bobb agreed, but said agencies should exercise caution in some situations.
"Is there anything you should not put on camera? Like a young child who's been sexually abused? Recording a spouse in a bad domestic violence case? Interviewing rape victims? The privacy interests may outweigh the interests of having that on tape."
For Huntsman, body cameras and the evidence they provide are now a key part of the investigative process.
"Juries and the public expect to see video now," he said. "We must provide that video in order to be doing competent policing. It's really a part of our modern world, both for control of police and control of the public. You can prove in court things you couldn't prove before."