Civic leaders in Los Angeles will be on high alert for social unrest later on Tuesday as a civilian review body decides whether two police officers who shot and killed an unarmed, mentally ill black man last summer should be disciplined or exonerated.
The killing of 25-year-old Ezell Ford on 11 August 2014 came in the immediate aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.
Emotions have run high since Ford was detained by anti-gang patrol officers near his house in South Los Angeles and shot three times, once in the back.
And they have threatened to boil over since the Los Angeles Times reported last Friday that both the police department and an independent police watchdog are planning to find the killing “within policy”.
If upheld, that would mean the officers would be subject to no professional discipline and could go straight back on to the streets.
Campaign group Black Lives Matter camped outside the private residence of Mayor Eric Garcetti on Sunday and Monday, calling for the resignation of the police chief, Charlie Beck, and posting large photographs of Ford on the railings. They are planning to turn out in greater numbers to await the verdict of the five-person civilian police commission, due to be announced after a closed-door deliberation this morning.
Both Beck and Garcetti have made it a priority to avoid the divisive, hostile and frequently violent style of policing that once made the LAPD notorious and played a major role in triggering four days of rioting and looting in 1992.
They have struggled, however, with a police culture that still provokes more civilian deaths than any other city in the United States. Ford was one of 18 people killed by the LAPD last year. The tally so far in 2015 is eight.
According to the information leaked to the Times, Ford’s DNA was found on one of the officer’s guns, which would bolster the claim that the officers opened fire in the context of a violent struggle. The autopsy showed that Ford had scratches on one of his hands. There were also said to be scratches on the holster of the gun.
Chief Beck, it was claimed in the reports, wants to exonerate the officers, while the independent watchdog has faulted them for the way they approached Ford and detained him before the struggle began.
The report has infuriated activists such as Melina Abdullah, chair of the Pan-African studies department at Cal State Los Angeles, who accuses the city of neglecting its most impoverished neighbourhoods and perpetuating decades of racial hostility towards the black population. “This mayor has refused to engage South Los Angeles and black Los Angeles,” Abdullah told reporters outside Garcetti’s official residence. “He’s ignored our issues – police brutality and police murder being at the top of that list.”
The LA district attorney’s office is currently prosecuting two LAPD officers on brutality-related charges – something that would have been unheard of at the time of the notorious Rodney King beating and the riots nearly a quarter of a century ago. A third officer was found guilty last week.
The mayor and the police chief have also pledged more support for community policing and special training for officers encountering mentally ill civilians. Mayor Garcetti called Ford’s mother on Sunday night and left a message to tell her his heart “goes out to her and her grieving family” – a gesture one of the protesters dismissed as “a day late and a dollar short”.
On Monday morning, the protesters tried to block the mayor’s official car from taking him to the airport for a two-day trip to Washington. “I voted for you,” one man yelled, “and I want to take my vote back.”
Shortly after, Garcetti put out a statement saying: “Trust and transparency are the foundation of the relationship between the Los Angeles police department and people it serves. I have confidence that the police commission will conduct an impartial and fair-minded review of the investigations.”
It is unusual, but not unheard of, for the police commission to reject the recommendations it receives at its hearings. Even if the commission sides with the officers, the Ford family can still hope for a more favourable outcome from the district attorney’s office which will make its own determination on whether the officers broke the law.
A spokesman for the district attorney said he could offer no timeline on when that review will be completed.