'Reign of terror': A summer of police violence in Los Angeles

Los Angeles police officers have continued to kill civilians at alarming rates and under questionable circumstances in the last three months, despite a summer of unprecedented activism and growing political pressure from lawmakers.

Most recently, two deputies with the Los Angeles sheriff’s department (LASD) fatally shot a bicyclist, 29-year-old Dijon Kizzee, who was fleeing after officers tried to stop him for an alleged “vehicle code” violation. The killing on Monday of yet another Black man in South LA was one of more than 10 fatal police shootings in the LA region since the George Floyd protests erupted at the end of May.

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“If they are killing in this climate, even with the light that has been shined on this, then it’s obvious that it’s their intent,” said Myesha Lopez, 35, whose father was killed by LASD in June. “I think the protests are only making them more agitated, more trigger-happy, more volatile, more unstable. I don’t believe these officers have the ability to reform themselves.”

Police leaders have put forward accounts of each killing that they say justify the use of force. But civil rights activists and victims’ families say the repeated bloodshed is a sign that police continue to escalate conflicts and resort to violence, even in the most routine of encounters – and that a more radical response is needed to prevent the next tragedy.

Steady killings during protests and pandemic

Police shoot an average of three to four people in LA county each month, or roughly 45 victims each year, according to an analysis by the LA Times. In the last two decades, officers have killed more than 1,000 people in the county, according to Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), an activist group.

Despite the pandemic shutdowns and heightened attention to police brutality, LA law enforcement is killing civilians at a rate that appears to be fairly consistent with previous years. From the start of 2020 through June, police in the county have killed at least 23 people, YJC says.

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“It’s like there’s no end to it, it just keeps happening,” said Lupita Carballo, a 21-year YJC organizer who lives in South LA, near the site of the latest killing.

Since the end of May, when mass protests erupted in LA, officers have fatally shot 11 people, according to Black Lives Matter LA, which also tracks killings. The sheriff’s department, which is separate from the LA police department (LAPD) and patrols areas outside of the city, was responsible for seven of these deaths.

If they are killing in this climate, even with the light that has been shined on this, then it’s obvious that it’s their intent

Myesha Lopez

LASD is the largest county police agency in the US, with jurisdiction in nearly 200 different towns and cities, and has a track record of brutality and controversial killings, racial profiling and corruption cases.

LASD scandals have piled up this summer at a dizzying pace. On 18 June, during the height of protests, an LASD Compton deputy killed Andres Guardado, an 18-year-old security guard who was fleeing and shot five times in the back. Recently, a deputy whistleblower alleged that Compton was home to a gang of violent deputies who have violated civilians’ rights and used excessive force.

In another LASD unit, more than two dozen deputies faced discipline in August for their links to a gang of tattooed officers, and a high-ranking official was reassigned after he said Guardado “chose his fate”. One lawsuit filed last month further accused LASD of fabricating a story and withholding evidence.

<span class=Hundreds of people protest following the death of George Floyd, in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA" src="https://news.yahoo.com/reign-terror-summer-police-violence-100021065.html" />

<span class=Hundreds of people protest following the death of George Floyd, in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA" src="https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/ealzYVGao3UTPDjhD.3_jQ--/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTcwNTtoPTQyMw--/https:/media.zenfs.com/en-GB/the_guardian_765/18bbcfa279192182b0749f01ceebd42b" class="caas-img" />

Hundreds of people protest following the death of George Floyd, in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: Étienne Laurent/EPA

“It’s a reign of terror,” said Paula Minor, a BLM activist in LA. “The sheriff’s department does whatever they want to do, and they know that no one will be held accountable.”

In LASD’s initial account of Dijon Kizzee’s killing this week, a spokesperson alleged that he had dropped a bundle of clothes while fleeing and the deputies spotted a handgun. The agency later claimed he “made a motion” toward the gun, and also accused the man of punching a deputy, though the officers did not sustain any injuries. Witnesses disputed the police account, and a family attorney said it appeared police shot at him 15 to 20 times. There was no body-camera footage.

“People run because of their innate fear of police,” said Marina Vergara, a South LA resident whose brother, Daniel Hernandez, was killed by police in April. She noted that some neighborhood residents arm themselves for protection: “When you are in South LA, you are not afforded the second amendment. We’re not seen as citizens who are protecting ourselves. We are seen as criminals.”

The forgotten victims: ‘We have no answers’

Most of the summer’s killings received almost no news coverage, with the limited information released about them coming from police.

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In a 27 May killing of a Latino man in North , an officer was called to a “neighbor dispute” and killed a man with a “sword”. In a 29 May killing in north LA county, police said they approached a man who was “walking on the sidewalk”, and when they saw he had a firearm, ended up taking him to the ground and killing him. In an East LA suburb on 7 June, police killed a 38-year-old who had reportedly been hit by a train; police said when they approached him he had a knife.

One victim who did not become a hashtag is Michael Thomas, a 61-year-old grandfather killed by LASD deputies on 11 June inside his home in Lancaster, north of the city. LASD alleged that the officers were responding to a suspected domestic violence call and that Thomas, who was unarmed, reached for the officer’s gun. But Thomas’ girlfriend said the two were only having an argument, and that he was trying to stop the officers from unlawfully entering his home, citing the fourth amendment.

Myesha Lopez, one of Thomas’ five daughters, said her father had watched a special on George Floyd the previous night and was terrified police would shoot him: “He said, ‘I know if I open this door, you’re going to kill me.’”

The officers, it appears, did just that, fatally shooting him in the chest.

Lopez said she believed that the “fact that he knew his rights incited the officer’s rage”, adding that she was devastated to learn that his girlfriend couldn’t even hold his hand or comfort her father as he lay dying. “They didn’t value his life. They didn’t care.”

In the Guardado case, authorities released key documents under intense public pressure. But Lopez said she has struggled to get the most basic information from LASD, including the names of the officers, or an incident report. She said she has even begged the department to allow the officer who killed her father to speak with her anonymously, just so she can understand what happened in the final moments: “We have no answers.”

Even a simple acknowledgment of the family’s pain would go a long way, she said: “We charge these people with authority over our lives, and they are unwilling to even say, ‘I’m sorry.’”

The sheriff’s office did not respond to inquiries about the case.

‘The system isn’t broken’

Los Angeles’ elected leaders have responded to the calls for police accountability this summer with a range of proposals – more community policing, minor cuts to police budgets, legislative efforts to prevent brutality and more.

But Kizzee’s killing this week has reignited calls for a more radical and urgent response – the dismantling of the embattled sheriff’s department.

Regardless of Kizzee’s final moments, activists said a suspected bike violation should never end in death, and that police can’t be trusted as first responders given how quickly they resort to lethal force.

“We don’t want to pay for more training. The culture is not going to change,” said Vergara, noting that the bloodshed will stop only when officers lose the many protections that give them license to kill with impunity. And she fears that might not happen until the public in LA sees a video akin to George Floyd’s death, one that captures an entire interaction from start to finish and clearly demonstrates an officer’s disregard for human life.

Lopez, Thomas’s daughter, also argued that the police should be disbanded, noting that LASD doesn’t provide safety for communities like hers, and that they often only engage in harmful acts when they are called to assist people in crisis or with other challenges.

“Officers are trained to think someone is trying to take their lives, so they are trained to kill,” said Lopez, noting she has never called police. “You can’t say that the system is broken. It’s doing what it was intended to do. It’s operating at optimum level.”

Lopez knew she wanted to get in engaged in local activism after watching George Floyd’s death. In June, she wrote to the mayor of Ontario, the southern California city where she lives, and outlined her own experiences with police over the years and the ways officers mistreat Black families like hers. She called on city leaders to stand up to systemic racism: “I tell you about us so that you are convinced that we matter.”

On 10 June, a police official responded to her email, thanking her for her words, but suggesting the George Floyd tragedy was unique and did not represent officers’ behavior.

The following day, police killed her father.

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