The LA Police Commission killed Elizabeth Tollison
By Robert Parry
San Gabriel Valley Tribune
August 26, 2018
Cops rarely kill anyone. Over 90 percent of them won’t fire their guns on the street during their careers.
Members of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners never use deadly force. These politically connected civilians set LAPD policy, but they aren’t cops and they don’t carry guns.
But, make no mistake about it: The Police Commission killed Elizabeth Tollison.
No, the commissioners didn’t hold the knife that sliced Tollison’s throat nor did they fire the fatal bullets, but they might as well have.
Tollison is the woman in a stunning set of videos recently released by the LAPD. On June 19, LAPD Van Nuys Division officers responded to a 911 call of a stabbing with the suspect present. The suspect, Guillermo Perez, took more than 24 steps toward them with a bloodied knife in his hands. He ignored 18 commands to drop the weapon and disregarded at least two blasts from a “less-lethal” bean bag shotgun.
But the officers didn’t use lethal force to stop him.
Perez then took a dozen steps backward, grabbed Tollison, a bystander, put the blade to her throat and pushed. The officers had no choice but to risk shooting Tollison in order to save her. They did not.
But while Perez cut her and cops shot her it was the Police Commission that set her up to be a human shield.
In 2017, the commission passed a major change to the LAPD’s Use of Force policy. It prioritized retreat and words to de-escalate situations over force to decisively resolve them.
That the policy was not written with the safety of the community or cops in mind was obvious from the start. When then-Commission President Matt Johnson, an entertainment industry attorney, began pushing to reform the old use of force policy, he penned a lengthy article for a South Los Angeles newspaper. It had many pontifications and promises about changing the LAPD. But, among its 1,571 words (double the length of this column) “safety,” “threat,” “risk” and “self-defense” never appeared.
Imagine that: The head of a major organization promised to reform that organization’s safety policy and made no promises about safety.
The results were predictable.
Following the release of the Tollison video, I spoke to several current and retired officers. Among them were patrol and SWAT cops, supervisors and union leaders. All agreed on one thing: The officers who faced down Perez had plenty of chances to stop him but most likely didn’t in order to comply with the commission’s intent.
But don’t believe me. Believe the commissioners: They made their intent very clear two years ago in a similar case that helped drive changes to the force policy. In October 2015, two LAPD officers confronted 37-year-old Norma Guzman, a mentally ill woman on who brandished a knife and advanced on them on a busy sidewalk near downtown. They warned her until she was within a few feet, then shot and killed her.
Then-Chief Charlie Beck found the shooting was justified, but, the commission overruled him and found the officers were out of policy because they had not retreated from Guzman.
The commission prioritized Guzman over bystanders under the old policy. Six months later, they made the policy even more restrictive. At the time, Johnson told the media he expected the new policy to result in fewer shootings and/or more officers being found out of policy because they didn’t try to de-escalate.
The officers in Van Nuys got the message.
Sadly, it is not the end of the matter. Currently, Assembly Bill 931 is making its way through Sacramento. It seeks to put into criminal law the same sorts of restrictions the police commission put in policy.
Officers across California will face prison if they use lethal force instead of retreating or de-escalating.
Elizabeth Tollison paid for the lesson of the Police Commission’s flawed idea with her life.
The question is: Will the Legislature learn that lesson before someone else pays the same price?