THE HUTCHINSON REPORT: Lancaster incident another test for reforms

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Contributing Columnist

Immediately after news broke of the slaying of 27-year-old Niani Finlayson by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy during a domestic disturbance call in Lancaster, my organization, the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable demanded the immediate release of the body camera footage of the slaying. 

Finlayson, a Black woman, was killed Dec. 4 after calling 911 to report her boyfriend would not leave her alone. 

When deputies arrived, Finlayson was threatening her boyfriend “with a large kitchen knife,” according to reports. When Finlayson attempted to stab her boyfriend, a deputy shot her.

There were two compelling reasons for making the demand. One was that the sheriff’s deputy who gunned down Finlayson had multiple prior complaints against him for excessive force and misconduct. In June 2020, he shot a 61-year-old Black man to death after responding to another domestic violence call. This made the shooting and the shooter highly suspect.

The second reason for the demand for immediate release was that in a dubious slaying of a civilian the public has the right to know if Finlayson really posed such a grave threat to the officer that he had to resort to gunplay.

Within hours after I made the call for release of the body cam footage of the slaying, a top official of the Sheriff’s Department agreed to speed up the timetable for release. He promised that I would get advance notice before it was released to the public. 

That was a positive step forward and showed that the department and Sheriff Robert Luna realized that the department had yet another potential public relations nightmare on its hands. It was crucial that they get out in front of it.

Luna further promised that there would be a thorough investigation to determine if this was yet another case of the overuse of deadly force by a deputy with a checkered history within the department.

It was hardly the first time that the questionable use of deadly force by a sheriff’s deputy has been hotly disputed. 

In the past the aftermath went like this. There was outrage from the victim’s family, and community activists. Next Sheriff’s Department officials and the sheriff’s Oversight Commission promised a vigorous investigation. The deputy was placed on administrative leave (with pay). Then after weeks or months passed, the deputy was back on the job and the case was closed. No action was taken.

Luna, though, has repeatedly said things are different this time around in dealing with misconduct. He has made his mantra reform. 

He vows that deputies will be held fully accountable for their actions and that strict adherence to civil rights and constitutional policing will be the rigid modus operandi of the department.

The Finlayson slaying is a major test for Luna to determine whether he will back up his words and promises with real action. But the slaying also points up the tough challenge that Luna continues to face.

Abuse, misconduct, up to and including the deadly use of force in highly dubious situations, have been a long-standing practice by far too many deputies. They repeatedly get away with it because they know the department will take no action — from suspension to firing — let alone make a recommendation for prosecution.

They know that they have a powerful union that will back them to the hilt no matter how outrageous their misconduct is. They know that the county Board of Supervisors has absolutely no real oversight over department practices and policies. 

The supervisors have no power to fire a callous, wayward, law-and-order tough guy sheriff. They know that the general public and much of the media will quickly move on after a momentary spurt of outrage over a blatant act of excessive force.

This has been virtual license for some deputies to commit outrageous acts of abuse and violence secure in the knowledge that they can get away with it. Luna is bucking up against that hard brick protective wall that shields sheriff’s deputies from accountability for their crimes.

It is only a short step from this for deputies to engage in racial profiling, harassment and using excessive force against citizens. The victims almost always are young African American and Hispanic males.

The ball is once again in Luna’s court. Tackling this problem and the problem of misconduct means more than just implementing new training and conduct standards. It means immediate and vigorous implementation of reform recommendations such as a fully empowered independent civilian oversight commission, getting rid of deputies who brutalize prisoners at the jails and administrators who look the other way, total transparency and accountability on the reform process. 

And most importantly it means firing and where warranted recommending prosecution of deputies who overuse deadly force.

The crackdown on deputy excessive force use must remain Luna’s priority. Anything less poses a grave danger to department credibility, public safety and balanced, fair constitutional policing. That was a prime reason for my call for the speedy release of the body cam footage of the Finlayson slaying. 

If it was indeed a case of gross overuse of deadly force, a prosecution must be brought. This is the ultimate proof of the department’s sincerity to weed out killer cops.

The videotape of the slaying will tell much.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He also is the host of the weekly Earl Ofari Hutchinson Show at 9 a.m. Saturday on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.