Crime & Justice

Federal report highlights LAPD community policing amid Skid Row shooting

LAPD Officer Deon Joseph and other LAPD officers engage a woman who said she was robbed early in the day on Skid Row.
LAPD Officer Deon Joseph and other LAPD officers engage a woman who said she was robbed early in the day on Skid Row.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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A federal report on best practices for policing highlights strides the Los Angeles Police Department has made in building trust and accountability in some neighborhoods, but the praise comes as the department tries to explain why its officers shot and killed a homeless man on Skid Row.  

Los Angeles police officers on Sunday shot and killed an unarmed, homeless man on Skid Row while responding to a robbery call. Police said the man grabbed an officer's gun during a struggle.

The following day, the White House released an interim report by the 21st Century Policing Task Force, which was charged with making recommendations on how to change police culture to build better relationships with communities.

“Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community,” the report states.

The task force was formed in December in response to the national debate on policing after officers in Ferguson, Los Angeles, New York and Cleveland killed young African-American men.

In the federal report, the Los Angeles Police department’s community policing teams in Watts and East Los Angeles were highlighted for building on-the-ground relationships with public housing residents. Officers there are assigned to community policing teams for five years and are offered more pay, according to the federal report.

Los Angeles also earned a mention for its civilian oversight board.

But shootings like the one on Skid Row expose the remaining rifts between police and communities.

Criminology professor Elliot Currie of the University of California, Irvine said having multiple policing programs is a good start, but the goal is for police departments to implement relationship-based policing across the board.

“What we want is for these not to be considered as scattered programs that we implement within a police department that’s otherwise unchanged,” Currie said. “But that we slowly shift the whole conception of what a police department is.”

Currie said the successes of one policing program can’t be instantly implemented in another community but should rather be tailored to address each neighborhood’s needs.

The federal report also recommends that police departments around the country involve members of their community, such as residents or social workers, in developing training for officers.

“It makes perfect sense,” Currie said. “If we want to deal with these situations in a more effective and less destructive fashion, one of the things we need to do is stop thinking of them as just police and just criminal justice problems.” 

Currie said most of the report’s recommendations aren’t new, however more powerful people, like the President, are now supporting them publicly. That’s new, Currie said.

Sunday’s shooting on Skid Row was caught on cellphone video and has been viewed more than six million times on YouTube, drawing international attention.

Authorities haven’t confirmed whether the man killed had been diagnosed with a mental illnesses, but Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck was quick to explain the mental health training and programs his officers receive. 

The officers involved in the shooting are assigned to the department’s Safer Cities Initiative, launched in 2005, to respond to crime on Skid Row.

“It is one of the most challenging policing environments in the country, said law enforcement consultant and retired Anaheim officer Joe Vargas.

Vargas said Skid Row is particularly unique because it is a dense area of unsheltered people who have limited access to health care, welfare and abuse treatment programs. Therefore, it requires its own unique policing strategy and community partnerships.

“There’s too much of a burden placed upon police to be the answer to these,” he said. “Really what police officers do is they deal with the symptoms of other things that are going wrong in those communities.”