SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Debbie Washington admits she was feeling angry when she arrived at the National Action Network headquarters Oct. 10 to hear Police Commission President Matt Johnson discuss policing issues with residents.
Her nephew, 18-year-old Carnell Snell, was shot and killed by Los Angeles police officers two weeks earlier after he ran away from police who had spotted him driving a car with paper plates, which they suspected was stolen. In that same weekend, police also had killed a 15-year-old Latino boy, who they said was trying to commit suicide by cop.
Washington said she came to the meeting to hear Johnson speak with community leaders and activists. She came looking for answers.
“We were trying to find out how we were going to get the coroner’s report,” she said. “And we thought this would be a vehicle that would help us get it.”
Her goal was to learn more at this meeting, but she eventually left unsatisfied.
The Rev. K.W. Tulloss, head of the local NAN chapter, laid out the ground rules for the meeting and turned it over to attorney Rasheda Kilpatrick, who questioned Johnson in the sanctuary of Concord Baptist Church, the local home of activist Rev. Al Sharpton’s NAN organization.
Kilpatrick did not shy away from the difficult questions.
“If someone is holding a gun, it seems that in Los Angeles, if the person on the other end of the gun is black or brown, it seems like police shoot first and ask questions later. What’s the policy for shooting first,” she asked.
Johnson explained that the commission would vote the next day at its weekly meeting on a new use of force policy that he spearheaded.
He said in the past, officers could shoot if they reasonably believed their life was in danger. With the new policy, deadly force would be a last resort, and used only after officers exhausted all other means, including the use of non-lethal alternatives like Tasers, which all officers are now required to carry. He said the commission is also working to equip all police cars with bean bag guns, as well.
Johnson said the new policy would also ask if the opportunity to de-escalate the situation existed. If officers neglected to de-escalate the situation when they could have, they would be found “out of policy.”
“Having an out of policy on their resumé impacts an officers ability to get promoted within the organization,” Johnson said.
Kilpatrick and others who stood up to ask Johnson questions during the meeting asked about the amount of power the Police Commission had to discipline.
“In our area,” she said, “There don’t seem to be consequences. If a police officer sees a gun anywhere in the vicinity, someone ends up dead,” Kilpatrick said.
Johnson was blunt.
“The commission has no power to discipline,” he said.
Instead, Johnson said, the police Board of Rights can accept a recommendation to fire someone or they can decrease the penalty.
As an example, Johnson cited the 2014 Clinton Alford Jr. case where officer Richard Garcia reached a plea agreement with prosecutors after both the police chief and the Police Commission found Garcia to be out of policy when he kicked and beat Alford.
Johnson said that Garcia received probation, and that the three other officers who stood by and did not stop him also lost their jobs.
“Institutionally, that was an important message to send,” Johnson said.
The commission voted Oct. 11 to adopt the proposed use of force policy. Johnson said that some of the recommendations included in the proposal were based on research of four innovative police departments throughout the country, Las Vegas, Dallas, Washington, D.C. and San Diego.
Police body cameras were also a topic of discussion at the event.
Kilpatrick said members of the community were initially excited about the idea, until Chief Beck decided that the videos would only be released by court order.
“The commission is still working on that policy,” Johnson said. The LAPD is treating the use of body cams the same way it treats digital in-car videos, Johnson said.
After that report is completed, Johnson said he hopes to have a new body camera policy in place by the beginning of next year.
Johnson also praised the use of community policing, saying he has seen those methods work very well in some areas Los Angeles, and in other parts of the country.
While Johnson gave information on how the commission was working to provide transparency for officer-involved shootings, and detailed the new use of force policy, it wasn’t enough for Washington.
She said Carnell Snell’s family was looking for answers regarding his death now. During the meeting, Washington stood up and addressed Johnson directly.
“We couldn’t get access to the coroner’s report, [Chief Beck] put a security hold on that,” Washington told Johnson. “We have no access as a family to the records. We withheld comment because we wanted facts and truth to be revealed. How can we get the information?
“Our belief is that my nephew was shot in the back, not what the chief said. He could not climb that gate with a gun in his hand,” she said. “LAPD was reckless in the way they handled it. They pulled him out of the laundry room between the front and back of the house and told him not to struggle, but a witness said he was too limp to struggle,” she said.
“They had handcuffed him together with his uncle, who was only there trying to help him as he died.”
Johnson apologized several times for the family’s loss, and thanked Washington for coming to the meeting and sharing her story, but said he could not talk specifically about that case.
He told her and the crowd about the new family liaison program to help families navigate the system in shootings like this, and apologized that the program had not yet been implemented.
“He told us the policy, he told us what he’s working on, and all of that sounded nice and good, but he still didn’t answer the questions of what we needed,” Washington said. “What happened to my nephew? Why was he killed?”
Police commissioners Cynthia McClain-Hill and newly appointed Shane Goldsmith were also at the meeting, prompting Black Lives Matter activists to accuse the commission of violating the Brown Act, the state law that specifies how bodies of public officials are supposed to conduct business.
The law prohibits a majority of a voting body to attend a public meeting that is properly noticed as such.
The Wave made calls to the City Attorney’s Office and the Police Commission for a response to the accusation Oct. 12, but the calls were not returned prior to press time.
Snell’s family met with activist Rev. Al Sharpton Oct. 12 to discuss their next steps in the case.