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New LA Police Commissioner Vows To Reduce Officer-Involved Shootings


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Black lives, they matter here.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Black lives, they matter here.


This was the scene at this week's meeting of the police commission here in LA. It's actually the scene at most commission meetings lately. The commission is a civilian board that monitors the police. Like a lot of police departments around the country, the LAPD is under a lot of scrutiny over police shootings and how police deal with people of color. This time, though, two protestors got arrested.


MATTHEW JOHNSON: I'm a police officer for the city of Los Angeles, and I hereby declare this to be an unlawful assembly.

MCEVERS: The man who eventually had to shut the meeting down is Matthew Johnson. He's the new president of the Police Commission and its only African-American member. I talked to Johnson today. He says one of his top priorities is to reduce the number of officer-involved shootings in LA. So far this year, there've been nearly twice as many shootings as the same time last year. Johnson acknowledges his job is bureaucratic. His plans include issuing lots of reports in the coming months. Still, he says his commission can push for police officers to be disciplined and get them to change the way they do things.

JOHNSON: We'll look at tactics in training. We'll look at the tools that they have, whether it's Tasers or beanbag shotguns, and we will also look at things like de-escalation techniques which are really - you're talking about communication skills, verbal skills to bring a situation down. If it's at a six, let's try and bring it down to a two rather than having it get to a ten.

MCEVERS: You are the only African-American member of the Police Commission, and you have said that the police department faces a crisis of confidence with people of color here in the city. Have you experienced discrimination from police yourself?

JOHNSON: I have many, many times not in the city of Los Angeles. I grew up in New Jersey, and it was a very common occurrence. If you were African-American and you were perceived to be in the wrong neighborhood or - when I was in college, I dropped a friend off at the airport who was going home for winter break. I was driving back on the New Jersey Turnpike. Everybody kind of knew - every African-American knew that the police would often stop African-Americans on the freeway. And I was intentionally driving very close to the speed limit. The speed limit was 55. I was driving 60, and cars were racing past me.

And I ultimately got pulled over, and the police officer's justification for pulling me over was that I was driving too close to the speed limit, which was suspicious. I mean, this was a coupled and police officers vacation for pulling me over was I was driving too close to the speed limit which was suspicious. I mean this was a freezing-cold December day. I got pulled out of my car, handcuffed on the side of the road, didn't let me put my jacket on, kept me there for over an hour while they searched every inch of my car. And then, of course, when they found nothing, they basically were letting me know that I was lucky to be let go.

MCEVERS: But how did your experience in New Jersey affect what you're doing now?

JOHNSON: Well, I think I have an understanding, a first-hand understanding of what it means to feel like you're being racially profiled, what - the kind of impact it can have on an entire community.

MCEVERS: You've been criticized by protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement because you now work inside the system. Is that going to make it hard for you to work with certain people in the community?

JOHNSON: Well, I think, first of all, you have to recognize that that is one group out of many, many, many groups, and it's not really about me as an individual although they may say otherwise. Look; I understand the pain and anger that comes out of where they're coming from. Their anger is at the institution, and as president of the Police Commission, I am absolutely the representative, the primary representative of the commission. And one - you know, along with the chief of police, we are primary representatives of the police department.

So my focus is really on two things. We have to really look very hard at every one of these use-of-force instances and judge them fairly. And secondly and probably more importantly, we need to be making sure that we're doing everything we can to decrease the numbers of use-of-force.

MCEVERS: A year from now, if you're thinking about, have I succeeded in this job, will the measure of success be a reduction in the number of officer-involved shootings?

JOHNSON: Yes. (Laughter) I mean, to give you a simple answer, absolutely. That is absolutely my goal. I believe that through the work that we're doing, we will be able to decrease the numbers of use-of-force.

MCEVERS: Matthew Johnson is the president of the Los Angeles Police Commission which provides civilian oversight for the LAPD. Commissioner Johnson, thank you so much for doing this today.

JOHNSON: Thank you for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.