What happens when ‘tough on crime’ meets weak on police reform?

by Erika D. Smith

Violent crime is up in California. So is the public’s fear of crime. And so is the poll-driven, tough-on-crime political rhetoric.

But if that leads to some sort of blind trust in law enforcement and an abandonment of police reform, we will all be the worse off for it.

Few things demonstrate this more clearly than the most recent meeting of the Los Angeles Police Commission.

Last Tuesday, the commissioners heard a breakdown of a new report from the LAPD’s inspector general, outlining just how ineffectual some of their oversight work has apparently been over the last few years.

Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered the report back in January, in hopes of bringing some clarity to the LAPD’s murky system for disciplining officers.

And indeed, the report clearly found that little or no discipline was ultimately imposed on most of the cops who the commission had determined violated the department’s deadly-force policies.

Why? Because the commissioners’ decisions were essentially overturned through one of two appeals processes — at times, with the final blessing of Police Chief Michel Moore or his predecessor, Charlie Beck.

The findings of the inspector general’s report were disconcerting. But not half as much as the conversation about them.

The commissioners, for example, didn’t even address why 40% of the LAPD officers who were found to have wrongly shot at suspects — sometimes killing them — faced zero punishment.

(To be fair, the commission’s president later told my  colleague Kevin Rector that such a finding is “demonstrative of an imperfect system and why we need to work harder to make it reflect what the citizens of [L.A.] want.”)

There also were plenty of clear-as-mud exchanges, like this doozy between commission Vice President Eileen Decker and Assistant Inspector General Django Sibley.

“All 18 of those cases were reduced to ‘not guilty’?” Decker asked.

“Correct,” Sibley said.

“What I’m trying to understand is, what does ‘not guilty’ mean?” Decker continued. “Now, does that mean that the decision of the Board of Police Commissioners that the case was out of policy was overturned?”

“Well, the way that it would appear in the record is that the officer’s use of force would be out of policy. But the action taken in connection with that was that the finding was appealed to an [administrative] hearing and was found not guilty,” Sibley explained. “So the commission’s finding still is reflected in the record as having been the ultimate outcome of the adjudication. But the record would also reflect that subsequent to that, the action of the appeal was taken and that the outcome of that appeal was a ‘not guilty’ finding.”

Ultimately, the commissioners voted to keep better track of such disciplinary decisions made on appeal, including through the city attorney’s office and by potentially posting information about the cases online.

Still, if this is what oversight looks like, it leaves a lot to be desired. The lack of accountability certainly doesn’t engender public trust.

It all reminded me of a conversation I had with outspoken police critic John Hamasaki.

The progressive defense attorney announced last week that he would not return to San Francisco’s Police Commission after his term expires next month.

He threw in the proverbial towel in a huff on Twitter, citing the department’s entrenched tough-on-crime culture and the many failures to implement effective reforms.

“I just, I lost faith in my ability to change what was happening,” Hamasaki told me not long after a jury found a San Francisco officer, Terrance Stangel, not guilty of excessive force in the beating of an unarmed Black man.

Among many things, including ire at San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, he blamed his pending departure on the way police unions have been emboldened to resist reform by this tough-on-crime redux era of California politics.

“They’ve been masters of slowing things down and then waiting for a more friendly political climate like now where, you know, you have politicians saying the gloves are off,” Hamasaki said.

Well, not all politicians. Many Democrats have been trying to have it both ways. Like Gov. Gavin Newsom describing the “California way” of public safety in his recent State of the State address.

“Our approach is to be neither indifferent to the realities of the present day, nor revert to the heavy-handed policies that have marked the failures of the past,” he insisted. “We’re funding local law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and solve more crimes. … We’re also investing hundreds of millions in new programs to tackle the root causes of crime, doubling down on proven violence-prevention programs.”

Most of the people running for mayor of Los Angeles have said some version of the same thing. A few have tried to walk an even finer line.

Rep. Karen Bass, for example, has gotten grief from progressives for wanting to expand the LAPD’s ranks back to its authorized force of 9,700 officers. But she also has said that a focus on fighting crime shouldn’t be used as an excuse to abandon reform.

Hamasaki told me much the same thing.

“Even when you’re returning to a more tough-on-crime [approach], still there’s a way that you can do reform,” he said. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”

The question is how — when reformers are drowned out, have their hands tied or get so disillusioned that they leave.

“You know,” Hamasaki said, “you always need the political will.”

Erika D. Smith is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times writing about the diversity of people and places across California.