As police face questions about use of force and fatal shootings of unarmed Black men, Los Angeles is retraining its 10,000 police officers to ease tensions. Will it help?
Charly Leundeu Keunang had this dream of becoming an actor. The native of Cameroon, a country in Africa, came to the United States in 1999 using a French passport with an assumed identity. He recited Shakespeare in his tent on Skid Row in Los Angeles and idolized Robert De Niro.
To those who knew him, Keunang seemed a gentle man who volunteered at Skid Row soup kitchens and set up his tent beneath a large cross outside a church so he would feel closer to God.
Keunang, however, gained fame not as an actor but after his life came to an abrupt and violent end on March 1 under a brilliant noonday sun. Millions of people across the globe have viewed a witness’s cellphone video posted on Facebook of what appears to be officers pinning him to the ground, pummeling him and shooting him at close range.
The 43-year-old Keunang’s fatal shooting – one of at least four Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) killings since 2014 of unarmed, Black men, some of them mentally ill or addicted to drugs – enraged community advocates. They say LA police reach for their guns far too quickly instead of trying to de-escalate confrontations with suspects, particularly Blacks and Latinos in poor Heleine Tchayou, center, the mother of Charly Leundeu Keunang, a homeless man who was shot and killed during a confrontation on Skid Row by Los Angeles police, arrives at an April 30 news conference in Los Angeles. The family of Keunang had filed a $20 million claim, which typically occurs before a lawsuit, against the city. AP Photo by Tami Abdollahand low-income neighborhoods.
Now, amid widespread criticism over excessive use of force by the LAPD, the department is embarking on training for all 10,000 officers on “de-escalating” confrontations and recognizing and appropriately approaching mentally ill people.
The five hours of training – some of it to be “reality-based exercises” conducted with officers using laser tag guns in a simulated village at a LAPD Academy location in the San Fernando Valley – also is to focus on taking cover and keeping distance from suspects; calling on backup to buy time and avoid unnecessary confrontations; and policing fundamentals like probable cause and reasonable suspicion.
LAPD Deputy Chief Bill Murphy, who is leading the training, said it’s also designed to improve relationships with the poor and people of color and help officers recognize and overcome their own “implicit” racial biases.
“The de-escalation of force, which we’re talking about here, is a big topic, and so is how you teach police officers to do that. The other one is how do you deal with a person suspected of having mental illness?” Murphy, who has served more than 30 years with LAPD, said.
“Especially in officer-involved shooting situations, many times it comes up – and sadly, it’s after the fact – that we shot someone and later learn they were dealing with mental illness. And so you need to know up front what signs you could look for to determine if that’s going to be a factor, so dealing with the mentally ill is very, very important.”
Murphy called officers’ verbal and nonverbal communication critical, including body movements, the pace, tone and clarity of words and listening closely to suspects.
Acknowledging the Past
The training also includes some of the LAPD’s shameful history, including police officers’ 1991 brutal beating of Rodney King, an unarmed Black man, in South LA, and the ensuing 1992 riots after four of the officers were found not guilty by a court in Simi Valley, which is a suburb of Los Angeles.
And in the late 1990s, scores of LA police officers either assigned to or associated with the anti-gang unit of the department’s Rampart division were convicted of offenses including unprovoked shootings and beatings, planting of false evidence, framing people, stealing and dealing narcotics, bank robbery, perjury and covering up of evidence of the wrongdoing.
“We talk about how it hasn’t always been positive,” Murphy said. “We haven’t always treated people respectfully, especially people of color. So we paint the picture that we’ve learned some hard lessons.”
Among grassroots advocates, especially those of color, however, the new LAPD training is drawing decidedly skeptical responses. The advocates say they’re wary of policing that relies far too heavily on use of force, criminalizes people of color and the poor for routine infractions and fails to deal adequately with officers’ racial and ethnic biases.
“The training is insufficient and it’s really a tokenized effort to address a bigger problem than five hours of training will do,” said Karren Lane, prevention network director for Community Coalition, an organization representing low-income residents in South LA.
“And if the city of Los Angeles wants to change the culture of law enforcement in the city, the very first thing that needs to happen is that officers need to be held accountable for misconduct and for excessive use of force in communities of color, in particular, and really this training is not going to get at the root causes of why we see brutality and excessive use in communities of color.”
After years of police abuses, including officers’ excessive use of force, with impunity, Lane said, “People have completely lost confidence in the LAPD.”
Erick Huerta of Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE), which works with low-income, Black and Latino communities in South LA, called the LAPD training a good first step.
“Police are acknowledging that there are some faults, some holes in terms of their training, in terms of how things work within the department from top down,” Huerta, who is SCOPE’s communications coordinator, said. “Any new training that they’re getting is good because it shows that the police are hearing us.”
Still, Huerta, who is Latino, knows racial profiling first-hand. He says he can’t count the number of times he’s been stopped merely for walking or riding his bike in a low-income neighborhood because he fit the profile of a person whom officers were seeking. He says he stays low-key and cooperates during encounters with officers, lest he become a victim of overzealous policing, like excessive questioning or being threatened with arrest.
Part of National Debate
The LAPD’s training comes amid a national outcry over police killings of unarmed Blacks, including – just since August 2014 – in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, North Charleston, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Police departments nationwide are rethinking their approaches to de-escalation and use of force, and policing is in a state of crisis despite crime levels that are at their lowest in decades, according to a February report from the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group based in Washington, D.C.
“We want police officers to recognize that stepping back from a contentious encounter and getting assistance from other officers is a sign of strength, not weakness,” the report said.
“In these situations, slowing down the encounter and using de-escalation and crisis-intervention skills can help prevent a relatively minor incident from cascading into a bad result that no one expected or wanted.”
In LA, Eric Ares, a community organizer for Skid Row-based Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), laid much of the blame for what he calls overly aggressive policing and escalation into use of force on what police call “community-oriented policing.”
Too often, Ares said, that amounts to harassment and officers handing out citations for infractions like jaywalking, tossing a cigarette butt or minor traffic violations. Such situations can quickly land somebody in court facing misdemeanor charges for not paying fines or, worse, degenerate into escalation and use of force, he said.
Like other grassroots advocates, he also said the LAPD receives a disproportionate share of the city budget – the department gets about $1.2 billion a year – and with each crime spike, some city leaders request more money for the department.
That reflects misplaced priorities, advocates say, who are often told of a lack of funds for summer school, programs for youths in recreation centers, housing for homeless and low-income people, treatment for the mentally ill and drug addicts, renovations and programming for city parks – all of which could ultimately reduce crime.
Ares also urged expansion of the LAPD’s System-wide Mental Assessment Response Team (known as SMART), composed of mental health experts who go out on calls with officers dealing with people suspected of having mental illness. (LAPD did not respond to several requests for information about SMART and its budget or requests about how much is being spent on the de-escalation training.)
“Why do we think we need police departments that require these insatiable budgets instead of talking about the root causes that lie beneath poverty and crime?” Ares said. “If Charly Keunang had access to comprehensive mental health care or housing, he wouldn’t have been on the streets.
“And if he wouldn’t have been on the streets, there is a very good chance he’d still be alive today.”
Gary Gately is a freelance journalist based in Baltimore. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, CBS News, The Crime Report and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.
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