One week we’re focused on the Prop 47 effort to reduce nonviolent felonies to misdemeanor status. The next week we’re swept up in the L.A. Sheriff’s race that could have wide-ranging impact on how mentally ill prisoners are treated. Then it’s police oversight and whether or not the County will build a massively expensive jail. After that, we’re involved in drug sentencing controversies, protests about police shootings of unarmed young black men, debates about the local DA’s use of split sentencing…
Whew! With so much foment around criminal justice issues bubbling into the public’s consciousness these days—here in Los Angeles and around the nation—Justice Not Jails and LA Progressive are launching a series of interviews with movement leaders to get their take on these critical issues. Conceived by JNJ’s Rev. Peter Laarman, the weekly interviews will also mix in viewpoints from key elected officials, here in our region and also statewide and nationally.
We’re gathering our list of potential interview subjects and would welcome your suggestions as well.
Cheryl Dorsey Out First
To kick off this series, we talked with Cheryl Dorsey, the retired Los Angeles Police Department Sergeant who has emerged as an outspoken critic of her former department and the state of today’s police practices generally. Her recent book, Black & Blue: The Creation of a Manifesto, takes a hard look at the inner workings of the LAPD—especially regarding its black officers, its women officers, and most especially its black women officers—as well as its relations with LA’s many diverse communities, now that it’s “no longer your father’s LAPD.”
Sharon Kyle: A well-regarded report by the Center for Constitutional Rights on New York City’s notorious stop-and-frisk practices showed that Blacks and Latinos were vastly overrepresented in these stops and were much more likely to have force used against them than Whites. Also, 90% of stops uncovered no weapons, contraband, or evidence of criminal activity. Would a similar study conducted in LA show significantly different results?
Cheryl Dorsey: We have the same issues in Los Angeles. The biggest difference is geography. You’d have to look at each division because the City of Los Angeles is spread over a larger region than New York City and is very racially segregated. But taken as a whole, my experience tells me that LA wouldn’t fare much better than New York in terms of disproportionate rates of stops and frisks and use of force when dealing with black and brown young men.
But there are really two Los Angeles Police Departments. The way police operate south of the Santa Monica Freeway, in the black and Hispanic parts of town, is very different than the way police deal with people in the Venice District, on the Westside, or even in the San Fernando Valley. There’s just a very different power dynamic for police south of the freeway.
Race is a big part of the equation. Officers are told early on that if they want to make a name for themselves, if they want to get ahead in the department, they need to “kick ass and take names” in the south end of town—in the 77th Street, Southwest and Southeast Divisions. That’s where you cut your chops.
They’re prepped to treat those communities as if they are an occupying force rather than being there to “protect and serve.” Black people generally don’t register complaints. They may complain among themselves but they’ve been conditioned to believe that what they say or do won’t make a difference, so officers know they can just run roughshod over us.
Dick Price: You were quite vocal about not giving Chief Charlie Beck a second five-year term as police chief. But now that he’s been appointed, what can he do differently and better.
Cheryl Dorsey: There are some things he can do to improve the department but I’m quite sure he will do absolutely nothing differently because he’s convinced that there is nothing to improve. When Police Commission President Steve Soboroff and Mayor Garcetti overlooked all that business about the horse his daughter sold to the department and the different ways he punished certain officers, I knew nothing would change.
Now we find out the department has been playing fast and loose with the arrest statistics—“Oh, sorry, we must have been looking at the page upside down”—well, you know it’s going to be more of the same.
Chief Beck won’t even admit that there’s anything wrong—not with the Frank Lyga scandal, the light discipline for Shaun Hillman, the Ezell Ford shooting—you can’t make things better if you won’t recognize that problems exist.
At the community hearing in South LA about the use of deadly force on another unarmed black young man—Ezell Ford, I asked Chief Beck why Ford was stopped by the officers in the first place. Beck wouldn’t give a direct answer. He couldn’t answer. He gave us doubletalk, code talk.
I pressed the issue and asked what was the probable cause. Beck responded that the officers didn’t need probable cause to stop Ford—only a reasonable suspicion. I continued to press, asking what Ford was doing that would raise reasonable suspicion in the minds of the officers. The answer was that they couldn’t see his hands! So, Ezell Ford is dead because they couldn’t see his hands!
And then Beck got reappointed.
Sharon Kyle: In discussing the increased drug arrests in black and brown communities, civil rights attorney Connie Rice wrote in her book, Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand, that an officer should move up in rank not for having the highest number of arrests but by bringing crime down and being a stabilizing force in the neighborhood. Do you agree?
Cheryl Dorsey: In the LAPD, you get promoted on the basis of who you know, not on the number of arrests you make or how well you do on tests. Everybody knows that promotions are made over the phone. Sure, you have to take tests, you have to sit for interviews, but the tests and interviews are subjective. Sergeants and others on the promotion boards can eliminate people they don’t like for whatever reason and promote the ones they like. It’s always been a very political process.
Dick Price: Across the country, there seem to be a lot of police shootings of young, unarmed, usually black young men. Are there more shootings now or are we just hearing more about them?
Cheryl: Killings have been going on all along. Social media—and everyone having a camera in their pocket—has brought the killings to our attention, sure. There is something I call “Contempt of Cop,” and it isn’t just about race. Look at Kelly Thomas, the mentally disturbed white man who was beaten to death by police in Fullerton.
Even though Kelly Thomas was mentally disturbed, he was a known entity in the community. Probably he said something they didn’t want to hear, so they put on their gloves. Whenever a police officer puts on his gloves, it always means, “I’m going to kick your ass.”
Too often officers take things personally and sometimes they screw up. Then they wonder what they can do.
Those CRASH officers in Newton Division are trying to come up with a story for the way they killed Ezell Ford.
What officers always say is what they’ve been taught to say: “I was in fear for my life,” or “He was going for my gun.”
And juries usually show police officers lots of deference. If an officer says, “he was going for my gun,” the jury will usually believe him.
During the trial for the Kelly Thomas killing, the jury was played a tape where they could hear one of the officers saying, “You see my fists? They’re getting ready to f*ck you up.” Even as Thomas is heard pleading and calling for his father—and still, all three officers involved in that killing walked.
Sharon Kyle: What could police departments do differently to cut down on the number of fatal encounters with unarmed civilians?
Cheryl Dorsey: It wouldn’t hurt if patrol officers underwent a psychological evaluation every three years—just to see if their thought processes have been warped by their experiences in ways that could be detrimental to themselves or to others.
I worked vice during my career. The LAPD will only let you serve 18 months with a vice unit. You’re around a lot of twisted people with the drugs and alcohol and prostitution and whatnot. They don’t want you to get too twisted yourself.
Why not deal with patrol officers the same way? Patrol officers deal with the most difficult, uncooperative people day in and day out. You see all kinds of horrible things on patrol. One day you might roll up on someone shot in the stomach and about to bleed to death. The next day it might be someone decapitated in a horrible car accident—you get the idea. It has to do something to you, and it would be good to talk it out with someone, work it out, hug it out.
Dick Price: Would having more women officers make a difference?
Cheryl: Women officers handle things differently. If we come up to a male suspect, he knows we aren’t going to kick his ass. So we have to be more adaptive, more persuasive, use our wiles, something besides force to get him to be more cooperative. You’d never see a woman straddling someone at the side of the road beating them senseless. It wouldn’t happen.
Sharon Kyle: What’s next for you?
Cheryl: I want to continue to be a voice for telling people how to deal with police, tell them about “contempt of police,” how police officers think, how to avoid creating problems for yourself.
I’m going to write a second book about my experiences since leaving the department. Why was someone like Christopher Dorner prodded to do the things he did? People need to understand that the LAPD never really releases you. They can blackball you so you can’t earn an income in anything related to law enforcement. I want to tell that story.
But the bottom line is that I want help make the LAPD a better department. It can be done, but only if people will speak out. I have a passion for this. I know we can do it.
Dick Price & Sharon Kyle