LOS ANGELES — Demands for social justice reforms were a major story in 2020 — here and across the nation.
The deaths of African Americans and other minorities at the hands of law enforcement personnel helped spark the call for reforms, which included the redistribution of resources allocated in city budgets for police departments nationwide and, locally, the election of a new district attorney.
In a year that was dominated by the COVID-19 global pandemic, one thing remained constant was the death of Black men by law enforcement. The deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, in particular, resulted in massive protests around the nation.
Taylor was a 26-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, woman shot to death in March by police serving an unannounced search warrant on her ex-boyfriend.
Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, Minnesota, over the Memorial Day weekend, became the catalyst of protests that led to civil unrest across the nation.
But there were also shooting much closer to home involving people of color and law enforcement.
On April 22, 38-year-old Daniel Hernandez was shot and killed by LAPD officer Toni McBride, whose father also is an LAPD officer who is actively involved in the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers.
Hernandez was killed when he failed to drop a box cutter after repeated commands to do so were issued by McBride. His shooting was livestreamed on Facebook. It showed him being shot six times.
“For months, the South L.A. community, family and friends of Daniel Hernandez have not only called me personally but have also been protesting in front of the LAPD Newton Division demanding answers and urging for an independent investigation,” Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price said regarding the shooting. “An independent review is necessary to help restore some of the public’s confidence in the police, affirm the truth, ensure justice is served and strengthen police-community trust.”
On Dec. 16, the Los Angeles Police Commission ruled the first four shots McBride fired at Hernandez were justified, while the last two were not and violated the department’s policy. McBride has not been formally charged in Hernandez’s death nor has an independent investigation taken place.
On June 18, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies killed 18-year-old Andres Guardado while he was allegedly working as a security guard at an auto body shop, which has been involved in multiple ongoing investigations related to shootings and illegal drug sales.
Sheriff’s Cmdr. Chris Marks tried to explain the deputies’ presence at the shooting scene.
“Since January 1, 2015, there have been 23 calls for service received at 420 W. Redondo Beach Blvd.,” Marks said. “These calls include 10 disturbances, two burglaries, two batteries and two vandalism calls.”
Deputies allege they saw Guardado talking to two women in a car in front of the driveway to the body shop. After making eye contact with the deputies, Guardado ran, the deputies gave chase, and Guardado ended up dead from multiple gunshot wounds to the back. A gun near Guardado’s body was recovered.
Guardado’s death was different in that the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s office released the autopsy report even though the sheriff’s department had requested a hold on the report. The medical examiner then called for a coroner’s inquest into Guardado’s death, something that hadn’t happened in the county for 30 years.
“Similar to a death investigation, the objective of an inquest is to collect information that supports the cause and manner of death, but it is a public quasi-judicial inquiry where witnesses may be called and documents may be subpoenaed in order to inquire into the cause, manner, and circumstances of death,” said Sarah Ardalani, public information officer for the medical examiner’s office.
During the inquest Nov. 30, all members of the sheriff’s department who were called to testify used their Fifth Amendment rights regarding self-incrimination to refuse to answer questions. The presiding hearing officer was given sealed documents, for review and those contents have yet to be made public.
“I have never seen an inquest performed since the 70s and anything that is testified to under oath will be admissible in a future civil trial,” said Carl Douglas, a noted civil rights attorney. “Since the cops chose not to testify, there will be no real benefit for the family, but it makes the cops look bad for taking the Fifth.”
U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters was angered by the deputies’ refusal to testify.
“It is outrageous that the officers involved in the killing of Andres Guardado are now refusing to testify in the coroner’s inquest into Guardado’s death,” Waters said. “It is this type of obfuscation by the [department] that has fueled decades-long outrage and resentment among the communities who find themselves victims of police violence time and time again. [The sheriff’s department] has a known history of serious abuses and allegations of misconduct that include racist gangs, the targeting of people of color, and shootings of civilians.”
The two deputies involved in the shooting have been relieved of duty due to an unrelated matter and have not been formally charged. The shooting did, however, revive discussions about funding to outfit deputies with body cameras.
On Aug. 31, Dijon Kizzee was riding his bike through the Westmont area of the unincorporated part of South Los Angeles when two deputies attempted to make contact with him over a routine traffic violation for riding on the wrong side of the street.
Kizzee ran from the deputies and in the process dropped a gun, which the deputies say he tried to point at them. He was shot 19 times and killed. The sheriff’s department provided conflicting statements about the gun Kizzee had in his possession which garnered harsh criticism from the family’s attorney.
“It was a media-driven sideshow, designed to deflect attention from the 19 shots two sheriff deputies fired at an unarmed man,” Douglas said at a news conference. “Nineteen shots reflect poor training and a failure to properly assess the need for deadly force. Nineteen shots reflect contagious fire and a fundamental lack of humanity for another living soul. Nineteen shots reflect poorly trained killers who overreacted in assessing the need to use deadly force.”
The community held multiple protests at the sheriff’s station, which at times turned violent. The deputies involved have not been charged in Kizzee’s death.
On Oct. 16, another sheriff’s deputy fatally shot and killed 25-year-old Fred Williams III in the unincorporated area of Willowbrook. Deputies alleged Williams was in Mona Park and they saw him with a gun. Home video footage showed the deputies chase Williams who was shot in the back and killed while he was preparing to jump from a brick wall.
The department released bodycam footage from the incident, which shows Williams with a gun in his possession. What remains in dispute is whether Williams was capable of pointing the gun at the deputy while he was trying to scale the wall.
It was the first deputy shooting recorded on department-issued body cameras, and the agency released footage of the chase and shooting about two weeks after the incident.
The deputies involved have not been publicly charged in Williams’ death and the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s office has scheduled another inquest into this deputy-involved shooting.
“As with the previous inquest, this proceeding supports the department’s mission and purpose to provide independent, evidence-based death investigations, [and] addresses the public’s interest in the death,” the agency said in a statement.
Retired Superior Court Judge Candace Cooper, who is overseeing the Guardado inquest, also will oversee the probe into the Williams case. It is scheduled to begin Jan. 28.
Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles and others seeking social justice reforms scored a huge victory Nov. 3 when George Gascón was elected to replace Jackie Lacey as Los Angeles County’s top prosecutor.
Gascón has vowed to make reforms, both immediately and over time, to address inequities in how prosecutions take place and to also address whether to begin bringing charges against members of law enforcement.
“The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office will pursue a system of parallel justice, where we not only seek legal prosecution for the offenders but also provide support services for victims in their evolution to becoming survivors,” he said.
One of the most significant changes is no longer requiring victims to testify and Gascón’s office will also work with victims of violence at the hands of law enforcement.
Black Lives Matter-LA also was successful in getting local politicians buy in to redirect a portion of both the LAPD and sheriff’s department budgets away from policing and more towards services to assist low-income individuals through more housing, education and mental health services.
When Los Angeles voters elected a new district attorney, they also overwhelmingly passed Measure J, which dedicates no less than 10% of the county’s locally generated unrestricted funding to address the disproportionate impact of racial injustice through community investments such as youth development, job training, small business development, supportive housing services and alternatives to incarceration.
“We put justice on the ballot. We put care, healing and opportunity on the ballot,” said Isaac Bryan, co-chair of the Measure J committee. “We challenged systems of incarceration. We were powered by the people.”
As the calls for reforms continue, the city has seen an uptick in crime, that threatens to derail the progress made by the heightened focus spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement.
While overall crime decreased in Los Angeles during the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of murders increased by 20% this year compared to 2019.
Between January and September, 239 people were murdered in Los Angeles compared to 199 people during the same period in 2019, according to the report produced by Crosstown, a nonprofit news organization based out of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Meanwhile, the city has seen a drop of 9.7% in overall crime.
As 2020, Gascón has pledged to reopen four cases involving officer-involved shootings. However the shootings of Daniel Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Dijon Kizzee and Fred Williams III are not included.
2 Urban Girls is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers the Compton and Inglewood area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.