“It’s been a really great experience, a very meaningful experience. And I did not ever expect to have this opportunity to, you know, be a part of something that could have such an impact on our residents. It really came out of nowhere.”
Kathleen Kim, a professor of law at Loyola Law School, wasn’t talking about some academic honor or a coveted judicial appointment. The 39-year-old daughter of South Korean immigrants was referring to Mayor Eric Garcetti naming her last year to the Los Angeles Police Commission.
“It’s been challenging but really meaningful,” the legal scholar, human trafficking authority and advocate for immigrant workers’ rights told The Tidings on a recent afternoon in her small second-floor Burns Hall office on Loyola’s compact campus off Albany Street. “And I feel really fortunate, because it’s definitely been one of the most meaningful experiences in my professional career so far.”
The time commitment, she admitted, is huge. Besides the regular Tuesday morning meetings at LAPD’s headquarters downtown, commission members are expected to spend 25 to 50 hours every week of their own time preparing.
“We have to adjudicate all the cases involving officer use of deadly force,” she explained. “So we have to determine the constitutionality of each one.”
The commission is also the oversight body for the LAPD, setting policy, reviewing all audits and internal investigations. The chief of police reports to the commission as well.
“So there are a lot of different things that we have to do in order for the department to operate.”
Chief Beck’s reappointment
Recently, the normally behind-the-scenes commission was thrust into the spotlight over reappointing Chief Charlie Beck to a second five-year term. The leader of the nation’s third largest law enforcement department, with 10,000 sworn officers, had continued Chief William Bratton’s successful efforts to modernize and reform the often-troubled LAPD. Overall crime and gang violence were way down during his command. And the department’s compliance with the federal consent decree because of serious misconduct by officers during the Rampart Scandal was finally met.
It meant Beck looked like a shoo-in for another term until last February, when he was publicly rebuked by the mayor and Commission President Steve Soboroff for refusing to severely punish officers involved in what was described as a “badly flawed shooting.”
Then it was learned the chief had overruled a disciplinary panel’s decision that an off-duty officer who had pulled a gun and uttered a racial slur in a bar altercation be fired. The officer’s uncle was a former deputy chief who has served with Beck.
Other matters raised more questions about Beck’s approach to disciplining officers and concerns about his leadership style.
Still, on Aug. 12, the Police Commission, including Professor Kim, reappointed Beck to a second five-year term by a 4-1 vote.
“I voted yes on Chief Beck because I think the department made great strides with community relations, in particular with the immigrant community, and the immigrant community has reflected that back to me,” she explained. “And then the LAPD has supported progressive policies on immigration. So on that front, they’ve been really strong. And since I know I was appointed to pay particular attention to those issues, I voted for Chief Beck.”
After a moment, she acknowledged, “There were some other internal management issues where Chief Beck’s leadership was called into question and may have been deficient. But I think that he’s well aware of those things, and we’ll continue to work with him to improve those issues.”
Ezell Ford shooting
The day before Beck’s reappointment, two members of LAPD’s Newton Division shot and killed Ezell Ford, an African American, in South Los Angeles. The 25-year-old mentally ill man was walking home on West 65th Street near Broadway. According to police reports, he tackled an officer before reaching for his gun. Both officers then opened fire. A witness who saw at least part of the shooting, however, told The Los Angeles Times that she saw no struggle before the gunfire.
Two weeks later a community meeting was held at the Paradise Baptist Church in the South Park neighborhood. Chief Beck attended, along with some members of the police commission. While he promised “as transparent and as rapid an investigation as is humanly possible in this circumstance,” he also said the department couldn’t release the names of the officers involved or offer details about how the whole confrontation began.
Local residents accused the LAPD of racial profiling, excessive force and not being honest. One man said police officers were the real “gang bangers” in the neighborhood. Others chanted, “Abolish the police, abolish the police.”
John Mack, a former longtime police commissioner and retired president of the L.A. Urban League, said the department had made great gains in building trust in the black community since the 1992 riots, ignited by a not guilty verdict for four white police officers whose beating of African American motorist Rodney King was caught on tape. But now Mack deeply worried that Ford’s death and the reaction to it illustrated a real backsliding.
“I feel it has become a case of five or six major, enormous steps forward … and we are not taking one or two steps backwards,” declared Mack.
Kim told The Tidings the police commission will be conducting a “very rigorous investigation” of the shooting that will probably take nearly a year, and will include door-to-door canvassing of the area and interviewing all witnesses so the panel can give a proper adjudication. The department’s inspector general’s office will conduct its own parallel investigation.
“I think that tension [in poor communities] is a continuing challenge,” Kim said. “And I’ve heard that where the LAPD was at over 20 years ago is so much worse than where we’re at now. I completely agree. But I think for those communities, and for others like them in other cities in the nation, there’s always a tense relationship with the police department. Because those communities tend to be ‘over-policed,’ and they suffer from race discrimination and just all kind of issues.”
“But,” she continued, “I think that the LAPD has done a really wonderful job at recognizing that it’s going to be a continuing issue, and so they have to work really, really hard at maintaining better community relations. And I think they’ve done that. I think they work really hard at it.”
Kim believes the meeting in South L.A. after the Ezell Ford shooting clearly demonstrated that LAPD leaders really do care about maintaining and building better relationships with the city’s urban communities, whether they’re black, brown or white; affluent, middle class or poor.
“And I think the community hears that,” she stressed. “I mean, I understand that there’s always going to be frustrations. But I think in L.A. it’s a little bit different. That’s why we’re not Ferguson. The church meeting wasn’t going to erupt into violence like it has in Ferguson.
“Because the LAPD has shown the willingness to hear the community. They showed that they’re committed to the community. And they showed that they care about accountability. In other words, if these officers messed up, they’re going to get disciplined. They could get criminally indicted.
“I think the community, therefore, has a safer space to air those concerns, even if they’re angry concerns.”