Just two days after Michael Brown was killed by policeman Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., 25-year-old Ezell Ford was fatally shot in South Los Angeles by two officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. Ford had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and was well known to residents of the area. Police say a struggle ensued when he was confronted. Ford then was shot three times.
In the last several years the LAPD has managed to clean up its tarnished image. There have been positive media reports, such as this KPCC story praising the police department’s Mental Evaluation Unit as a “model” for the nation and this New York Times article claiming that the LAPD is a “police force transformed.” Such coverage creates the impression that the third largest police force in the nation has emerged from controversies like the Rodney King beating and the Ramparts scandal and is now a standard-bearer in law enforcement.
But a new investigation by The Guardian newspaper has found that the LAPD leads the nation in officer-involved deaths. This year alone, LAPD officers have been responsible for killing 10 people, five of whom were unarmed. That count does not include Ford, who was killed on Aug. 11, 2014.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, although progressive on economic justice issues, has taken relatively little action on police killings of unarmed blacks. A dozen or so activists with Black Lives Matter (BLM) have attempted to force the mayor’s hand by camping out in front of his home since Sunday. On Tuesday the campers headed to a Police Commission meeting in downtown L.A. where the five-member appointed panel planned to weigh recommendations made by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and Inspector General Alex Bustamante. While Bustamante maintained that Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas had approached Ford inappropriately, he agreed with Beck that the fatal shooting was consistent with policy.
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Reporting from the commission meeting, I witnessed not only the public rage against police killings like that of Ford but also the brutality of police as they proceeded, in full view of the public, to arrest one of the activists present. Dozens of people were gathered in a room packed with reporters, and dozens more watched from an overflow room as one speaker after another expressed their anger at the commissioners, Chief Beck and Inspector General Bustamante.
One man wore a red Ku Klux Klan robe, complete with pointy hood, to make the case that police violence is a symptom of white supremacy, regardless of the color of officers’ skin (neither Wampler nor Villegas are white). He accused Beck of being a “goddamn train wreck.” A woman led a mass chant, “Ezell Ford’s life matters.” A young African-American man addressing the hearing elicited gasps when he angrily tossed a sheaf of comment sheets into the air to represent the countless people killed by police. The man, who later identified himself to me as Evan Bunch, said to the commissioners, “You are numb to the killing of a human being. This means now, you’re like Hitler.”
As Bunch made his way out of the room I asked him if I could interview him after the meeting and he immediately agreed. But a few minutes later, a commotion ensued and people ran outside, saying Bunch had been arrested.
I followed with my video camera until I reached the opposite end of the building. There lay Bunch on the concrete immediately outside the building with his hands cuffed behind his back and three LAPD officers hovering over him. Bunch’s friends stood yelling at the cops, demanding to know why he was being arrested. A few seconds later two officers roughly lifted Bunch by his arms and, as he screamed in pain, dragged him back into the building down a flight of stairs, his legs and feet thudding against each step. I immediately posted the raw footage of him being dragged away on social media, and within hours it was shared hundreds of times and viewed thousands of times. Immediately a call to #FreeEvan went out, and, in a testament to the power of instant Internet communication, people mobilized rapidly. Bunch was freed later in the day.
Commander Andrew Smith of the LAPD’s media relations and community affairs unit, a congenial white officer, explained to me that Bunch was not arrested, he was simply “detained for disturbing the peace.” I asked him whether it was an embarrassment for the LAPD to treat an African-American in this manner on a day when community members were so outraged over police brutality. Smith’s response: “That’s a good opinion; you’re welcome to it.”
LAPD officers might be living in an alternate reality, in which they are a besieged minority under attack from all sides, accused of misbehavior constantly and under scrutiny for the tiniest of missteps. The truth is that that exact description applies more accurately to Black America. Armed to the teeth, police officers wield their deadly weapons with impunity and have a massive structure of institutionalized support behind them in the form of police unions, elected officials, the court system and appointed officials like members of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners.
Through that support system, officers enjoy a form of immunity that is not available to civilians. Ford’s mother, Tritobia, told the commissioners before they issued their ruling, “All my son wanted to do was live. ... How can [the officers] not have a reason to stop him, but yet you clear them? Please, I have faith in you yet. He had been stopped before and lived. These officers did wrong.”
But Ford’s killers are likely to walk. Hours after the public comment period ended, the five commissioners ruled that Wampler “acted out of policy” when he shot Ford, while Villegas didn’t. Both officers were out of policy in drawing their weapons. Now it is up to Beck to determine what punishment, if any, to mete out to Wampler. In the few cases where the commission has ruled against an officer’s actions, Beck has generally ignored its recommendations. In the meantime, BLM activists have asked City District Attorney Jackie Lacey—the first black D.A. in Los Angeles history—to file charges.
Steven Lerman, the attorney representing the Ford family, plans to bring a wrongful death lawsuit against the officers in federal court. Lerman, who was present at the commission hearing, characterized the shooting as “not only not justified, but a homicide with evil intent” and declared that the officers ought to “be in federal prison for their violation of Ezell Ford’s civil rights.” Lerman, who also represented Rodney King in 1992, sees the Black Lives Matter movement as part of a “continuum [from 1992] ... with the rash of shootings of unarmed black and Latino men across the country.”
BLM activist Dawn Bodkins, who has been camping out in front of the mayor’s house, also attended the hearing. For Bodkins, justice means the firing of Chief Beck at the very least. She added, “If Mayor Garcetti doesn’t handle [Beck], then we can consider taking him [Garcetti] out of office.” Bodkins also wants the police commissioners to deliberate in public instead of behind closed doors. And activists like her are eyeing the recent court victory of Chicagoans who won reparations for the horrific abuses they suffered when they were tortured by police in the 1970s and ’80s.
The story of Ezell Ford has not received nearly enough national media attention despite being on par with other high-profile cases across the nation of police brutality against unarmed African-Americans. Whether that is because the LAPD continues to cling to its positive image, or whether the press has simply not highlighted the case strongly enough, is not clear. What is certain is that the Black Lives Matter movement—arguably the most important social and political U.S.-based movement in a decade—will not rest until there is justice for Ford and all the others unjustifiably killed by police.