Editorials

Police report: President Obama gets a productive report on officers' accountability

Los Angeles Police detective Meghan Aguilar explains images released by police that could indicate evidence of a suspect holding a police officer’s gun, seen in a video shot by a witness at the scene of the shooting of a homeless man on Skid Row of Los Angeles, top row left, at a news conference at police headquarters Monday, March 2, 2015.
Los Angeles Police detective Meghan Aguilar explains images released by police that could indicate evidence of a suspect holding a police officer’s gun, seen in a video shot by a witness at the scene of the shooting of a homeless man on Skid Row of Los Angeles, top row left, at a news conference at police headquarters Monday, March 2, 2015. AP

His nickname was “Africa,” some in the Los Angeles skid row section said. One person took a cell phone video of the man’s confrontation with multiple officers, who were, according to early reports, there to get him to move his tent off a sidewalk.

The man struggled, refused the orders of officers and then was shot several times and was dead at the scene. Los Angeles police officials say that “Africa” had reached for an officer’s gun and that the officer had shouted that the man had his gun. The gun was found cocked and jammed with a bullet in the chamber, indicating there had been a struggle for it.

There are videos from body cameras worn by officers and from cell phones of passersby.

And so another investigation of a fatal confrontation with police will begin.

Task force report

This incident came just before President Obama received from a task force a report recommending more oversight and record-keeping of incidents when police use deadly force. Obama put the group together after last year’s deaths in Ferguson, Mo., and Los Angeles of black men confronted by police. The tragedies set off a firestorm over racially charged episodes involving people of color and law enforcement.

Obama said the incidents turned up “deep-rooted frustration in many communities of color around the need for fair and just law enforcement.” Indeed, it’s fair to say in most communities of any size there have long been tensions between police and African-American citizens in particular. In some cases, the distrust is based in history.

It’s astounding that records of shootings involving police across the country have been spotty and collected on a voluntary basis. The task force recommended more complete record-keeping.

Consider that even Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who co-chaired the task force, acknowledged surprise at the lack of records. “There’s no reason,” he said, “for us not to have this data available. Now that we know that this does not exist, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to develop that information.”

Sixty-three recommendations came from the group, which held seven public hearings around the United States and heard got testimony from 100 people.

Outside police reviews

One common-sense recommendation almost certain to be put into practice calls for independent investigations whenever there is a fatal shooting involving police. Some police organizations find the idea insulting, believing that it encourages the notion in a community that police are incapable of investigating themselves without prejudice. While that’s somewhat understandable, there have been too many confrontations that have turned deadly – and others that thankfully didn’t result in deaths but could have – not to recognize the value of an independent investigation.

Internal investigations can be perfectly fair, but the incidents in recent years call for a policy of independent probes.

The task force also recognized that officers need more training for their own benefit, including increased instruction in how to handle stressful situations, which most encounter on a regular basis. Body cameras on officers also are helpful. The value of such cameras will be shown by the review of the Los Angeles shooting. All officers there are now required to wear the cameras as a witness for both the police and those they encounter.

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