The slaying of Anthony Weber by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies again casts the ugly glare on something that Sheriff’s Department officials virtually promised would cease. That is the killing under highly dubious circumstances of young African-American and Hispanic males.
The word dubious is charitable given that Weber was a high school teen, was not charged with any crime, and there was no report of any gang involvement, and worst of all, no gun or other weapon was publicly displayed by the Sheriff’s Department.
This latter point is crucial. The first press reports, based exclusively on the claim by the Sheriff’s Department, was that there was a gun. But sheriff’s officials did not produce the gun. Still, the official line that Weber had a gun dangled in the public mind, and therefore this seemed to bolster the contention that the shooting was justified.
It was, of course, anything but. However, this continued the disturbing pattern of questionable officer-involved shootings; namely that the victim had a gun or weapon, and therefore the officers acted in self-defense.
That was supposed to be one of the first things that the reform-minded L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell clamped down on: the ridiculously high number of excessive force actions by sheriff’s deputies, almost all unpunished, that for years has plagued the department.
Tackling this problem meant immediate and vigorous implementation of the dozens of reform recommendations such as a fully empowered independent civilian oversight commission, getting rid of deputies who brutalized prisoners and administrators at the jails who looked the other way, total transparency and accountability on the reform process.
And most importantly, eliminating the deeply troubling problem of dubious officer-involved shootings and allegations of racial profiling by deputies. Activists repeatedly challenged former Sheriff Lee Baca to rein in deputies who overuse deadly force against young African-American and Hispanic males.
The same challenge confronts McDonnell. The department took one step in that direction when it agreed to review and revise policy on how and when officers should use deadly force in civilian encounters.
The policy change would emphasize containment and de-escalation, not confrontation, and no gun play when confronting civilians in situations where there was no direct threat to the officers.
The next step was that the Office of Independent Review tasked with investigating all officer-involved shootings and use of excessive force would provide detailed and timely reports on its findings and what action it would take in the cases. This again meant full public transparency in the findings and the action.
That is not enough. There must be real discipline of deputies who used deadly force under highly dubious circumstances. That is where things have fallen apart.
The infuriating pattern goes like this. McDonnell will try to, or even succeed in firing deputies who have been identified as using excessive force or other repeated violations of department policies. The union immediately jumps in and files appeals or court actions to overturn the discipline or terminations.
Then, in the case of an especially outrageous shooting, L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey refuses to prosecute the officers involved. That unhinges all the talk and paper recommendations for reform.
Deputies who blatantly use deadly force have a virtual iron clad shield of immunity from discipline and prosecution. That is tantamount to a license to kill with impunity.
In fairness, there has overall been a noticeable reduction under McDonnel’s watch in the number of officer-involved shootings. The credit must go to him and other sheriff’s officials, for being aggressive in training, the implementation of internal policies on use of force, and aggressively investigating complaints of abuse. Those are all pluses.
However, these measures can’t substitute for swift and firm discipline of officers guilty of excessive force violations, and where warranted their prosecution.
Now that there’s an official civil panel tasked with oversight of the Sheriff’s Department, the issue of the use of deadly force should be item number one on its agenda to complete the reform process within the department.
The panel also will have to have complete access to records and information by the Sheriff’s Department in investigating these shootings. But it will also have to have subpoena power to gain access to documents and reports that are deliberately shielded by confidential requirements.
The slaying of Weber was in the worst tragic sense a perfect storm of what can go wrong when officers resort to deadly force. There’s a teen victim, who is African-American, and the claim of a weapon, and counterclaim that the youth was unarmed, grieving parents, and a community again incensed by a highly questionable slaying.
Despite, the arguable progress and good intentions of a department under fire and with a mandate to reform, the Weber killing again casts an ugly glare on the Sheriff’s Department.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “Fifty Years Later: Why the Murder of Dr. King Still Hurts” (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.