LOS ANGELES — The city’s Police Department is one of several police agencies across the country accused of using excessive force, but the president of the Los Angeles Police Commission says the department is “just warming up” as it seeks to mete out justice and repair its image in the community.
“We have come a long way but still the department and commission have goals for LAPD,” said Steve Soboroff, head of the five-member commission that oversees the department
“There are [incidents] that have escalated and gone terribly wrong,” Soboroff said. “It’s frustrating that [the investigation process] takes longer than [people] think.”
The commission, the Police Department and District Attorney Jackie Lacey have come under fire recently from activists for failing to act swiftly in the investigation and prosecution of officers for the fatal shootings of Ezell Ford of South L.A., Charly “Cameroon” Leundeu Keunang on Skid Row and, most recently, Brendon Glenn in Venice Beach.
Other LAPD incidents include the non-fatal shooting of Jamar Nicholson, who was mistakenly shot by officers when they saw one of his friends with a replica handgun; and Clinton Alford, who was severely beaten based on camera surveillance footage.
“People want outcomes with all their hearts and soul, but it takes time,” said Soboroff, who was appointed to the commission by Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2013. “We have the time to do things right. There is no rush to do something wrong.”
In an interview with The Wave, Soboroff highlighted the department’s progress and pinpoints problems, while explaining the commission’s authority and limitations. He conceded that the department is far from perfect, but it is doing some things right.
Q: Describe the role of the commission.
A: We act as a board of directors for the Police Department. We don’t operate the department. The police chief reports to us while the department reports to the chief. There are 13,000 employees in LAPD. The board has one employee. We help set policies but the police chief is the operating officer for conduct and policy. For example, in a police misconduct investigation, we determine if an officer was in or not in policy. We review the case and determine the tactics and use of weapon and the police chief determines discipline.
Q: In your opinion, where has the department fallen short? Where has it made improvements?
A: I think, first of all, it will always need improvement. Perfection is never achieved. Perfection is when we don’t have crime. The department needs to double-down with community policing and interaction with communities — increasing foot patrols will improve community beats. We have all types of organized activities like giveaways for shoes, books and toys. We have youth programs, (including Jeopardy, LAPD Youth Advocacy, and Law Enforcement Cadet ) we just need to do more of it. With the shrinking middle class, homelessness, cutbacks in educational programs, gangs are recruiting and kids are looking for a sense of belonging, a brotherhood. It’s easier for kids to go wrong than right. It takes a village, a community, parents, good schools and teachers to help a kid go right.
We have a very diverse Police Department and we just need to keep that up. And I think we can do better than that. We need more cops. We need to keep up with diversity, including men, women, Asian, African American and everything in between. We have a huge melting pot in L.A. and the police reflect that, but it needs to continue to do that.
Q: The commission is supposed to “serve as the citizens’ voice in police affairs,” yet what do you say when critics believe the panel is not doing enough when it comes to police using excessive force?
A: Go to the commission meetings. They’re public and it’s the highest level above the chief. People can talk on any subject they want. These meetings are definitely the place. There are also community police advisory boards (the groups meet monthly to discuss crime and community issues.) The implementation of body cameras is going to be great. People’s memory and brain can fail them but the camera tells the truth on both sides.
Q: Some LAPD officers are already using the body cameras. In some incidents, a camera was rolling but the public has not been able to see the footage. People want to see the footage.
A: If people want to see it, they want to see it. In a process for trials, people have the right to a fair trial. If you do anything that would impede that right, it might stop people from being punished in court. [Our footage] won’t be uploaded unto a YouTube page. The footage is used as evidence and sometimes in prosecution trials for officers and suspects. Our footage is put in a safe place where no one can see [it].
Most cities and the Department of Justice — that’s what they recommend. Some cities and states might have other laws where they require public viewing. So be it. But most departments say, “If that’s what we have to do, then don’t use the cameras.”
I think we’re on the brink of seeing a dramatic reduction in officer-related complaints and uses of force by officers. In some cities, like Rialto, they learned that if people know they’re being filmed — not a block a way as seen in some viral footage — people tend to act differently then. The beauty of the camera is not what happens, but in what doesn’t happen. If that happens here, that would be wonderful. It would save a lot of money in legal fees. Money can go to a lot different places than lawyers. That doesn’t mean that in a big Police Department that bad things never happen. We never want our police to use their weapons. Out of two million encounters with the public in a year, weapons are only used 30 times. But that doesn’t mean 30 times is not enough.
Q: Some critics feel LAPD officers are not trained well enough. What do you say to that?
A: From our perspective, it’s not enough to think that someone trained, who can pass a test, doesn’t need retraining. There’s constant retraining. The issue isn’t about re-training as it is more about additional training for our officers What’s going on in the community is a discussion we do have, but we don’t do it enough. Right now, people consider policemen one way despite the fact that there are 10,000 uniformed men who can make mistakes here and there — generalizing is bad for both sides of the badge.
Q: With so many people distrustful of system, what can the commission do to restore public trust and confidence?
A: Continue to do what we’re doing. As a society, we need to help provide more opportunity for people instead of the four walls of a jail cell. I’d rather it be four walls of an office or classroom.