Should LAPD Officers Involved in Shootings of Black Men Be Prosecuted?

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“You help killer cops, you help killer cops!”

As the chant rumbled through a packed community center in South L.A. recently, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey stared at the people pointing their fingers at her. “You’re a race traitor,” one woman screamed. “A betrayal, an accomplice to murder.”

When she finally addressed the crowd members at a town hall meeting on race and the criminal justice system, Lacey told them she understood their anger. A little boy screamed at her from the front row, “No, you don’t!” Her shoulders slumped and Lacey asked them to give her a chance. They booed and demanded her resignation.

The event illustrated the intense pressure on Lacey — the county’s first black district attorney — to take a tougher stance in prosecuting police officers who use force against civilians, particularly African-Americans.

In her latest test, Lacey has to decide whether to file charges in two high-profile killings of black men by police, including one in which Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck has publicly urged her to prosecute the officer who shot an unarmed man in the back near the Venice boardwalk last year.

The decisions, and the larger issue of how prosecutors deal with police force, weigh heavily on the otherwise popular Lacey, who this year became the county’s first district attorney to win re-election without a challenger in 60 years.

Her office has not filed charges against an officer in an on-duty shooting in more than 15 years, long before she took the helm. But Lacey has drawn especially forceful criticism from some African-American activists who say they feel she has failed them.

For her part, Lacey says she has a deep-rooted respect for police but also a clear view of their historical abuse of black people and how that influence carries into the present. After police shootings, she said her mind often jumps to the same question: Was it racially motivated?

“Who could not think about that?” she said in an interview, adding that she always looks for assumptions in cases, especially those involving people of color. She recently announced new mandatory training for prosecutors in how to avoid implicit racial biases.

Some civil rights advocates say it’s unfair to blame Lacey, individually, for a system that trains prosecutors to view law enforcement as the good guys and then expects them to look at officers as potential suspects in force cases.

“The culture of the D.A.’s office is to circle the wagons around cops who you need to make your cases. That’s human nature,” said longtime civil rights attorney Connie Rice, adding that she believes Lacey is one of the fairest prosecutors she’s met.

Beyond that, Rice said, officers have wide latitude under the law in use-of-force encounters. Officers can’t be held criminally liable if they acted reasonably and genuinely feared for their safety when they fired their weapons — an extremely tough thing for prosecutors to disprove.

Some of Lacey’s critics have contrasted her inaction to the decisiveness of Marilyn J. Mosby, Maryland’s state attorney for Baltimore. Mosby moved quickly to file criminal charges against six officers just two weeks after Freddie Gray, a young black man, suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody. But all of the officers were acquitted or had their charges dropped.

Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson — whose South L.A. district is considered the heart of the city’s black community — said he’s never heard any complaints about Lacey. The real problem, he said, is shootings by officers are investigated by their own departments.

“It is the equivalent of the police stopping me and saying, ‘Let me see your license,’ and me saying ‘No, but I have it. Trust me,'” Harris-Dawson said.

But Dermot Givens, a political consultant and defense attorney, said Lacey deserves criticism. Givens said some of the city’s African-American residents feel betrayed by her decisions not to file charges against officers in controversial cases. Almost worse, he said, is her sluggishness in announcing whether she’ll file charges. The delays, Givens said, can only be explained as “damage control.”

“Jackie Lacey is just quiet — silent — and hopes it all blows over,” Givens said. “That’s terrible, absolutely terrible, for an elected official. … The buck stops with her.”

Lacey came to power in 2012, shortly before the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which rekindled a national debate over race and policing.

Last year, civil rights activists lambasted her for not prosecuting Daniel Andrew, a white California Highway Patrol officer seen on video repeatedly punching a mentally ill black woman on the 10 Freeway. Lacey’s office concluded the officer was required to use some level of force to keep Marlene Pinnock out of freeway traffic for her own safety.

Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city’s largest black-owned newspaper, said at the time that her decision was “unbelievable.” “No one who has seen the videotape needed a bias report to determine that the beating suffered by Ms. Pinnock was criminal,” he told his newspaper. “It was clearly a use of excessive force.”

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Source: Los Angeles Times | Marisa Gerber

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