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Crime & Justice

Head of LA's police commission on reform: 'You have to change hearts and minds'

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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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.