Wary of Loud Protests, Cop Commission Threatens to Arrest the Disrespectful

Protesters outside LAPD headquarters
Protesters outside LAPD headquarters

UPDATE at 3:05 p.m. Monday, Aug. 31, 2015: Updated at the bottom with a statement from Black Lives Matter's Melina Abdullah, who calls the proposed rules an effort to "silence an engaged public."

If you make disrespectful, personal or repetitious remarks during open meetings of the L.A. Police Commission, you could be kicked out and ultimately arrested.

That, at least, is a proposal scheduled to be considered tomorrow by the politically appointed body that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department. The commission will consider new "Rules for Public Attendance and Participation at Meetings of the Board of Police Commissioners."

The proposed changes are clearly a reaction to boisterous protests by members and supporters of the local Black Lives Matter movement, which is particularly unhappy with the official response to the shooting of unarmed African American Ezell Ford in August of 2014. Two officers involved in that South L.A. confrontation were found to have violated department policy, but possible punishment has not been announced.

Black Lives Matter protests, including loud chants, inspired the Police Commission to stop summer meetings and break for calm. Arrests have been made at commission meetings and at events attended by the chief of police and the mayor.

The ACLU of Southern California is unhappy with the commission's proposed crackdown on demonstrators.

A letter to the commission by ACLU staff attorney Catherine A. Wagner encourages members to revise this policy proposal so that it doesn't restrict free speech in ways she argues would be unconstitutional.

The rules proposed by commission executive director Richard Tefank and vetted by the City Attorney's office and the commission's own counsel include the following:

Each person who addresses the board shall do so in an orderly manner and shall refrain from making repetitious, personal, impertinent, or profane remarks regarding or directed toward any member of the board, staff, or the general public. Any person who makes such remarks or who otherwise engages in disorderly conduct, either of which causes an actual disruption of the orderly conduct of the meeting, shall be subject to enforcement action ...

The proposed language also says that "no person in the audience at a board meeting shall engage in loud, threatening or abusive language, whistling, stamping feet or other acts which cause a disruption of the meeting or otherwise impede the orderly conduct of the meeting."

Signs, posters and banners that "disrupt" the meetings, held at LAPD headquarters downtown, would also be prohibited, according to the draft policy.

Police can be used to remove disruptive audience members, and they could be charged with relevant allegations if, for example, they resist officers, the proposal says.

The ACLU appears to have issues with much of the above.

Attorney Wagner cites case law that protects extreme speech even in decorous public forums. A U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruling from 2010, for example, says that "government officials in America occasionally must tolerate offensive or irritating speech."

That decision reversed the conviction of a man who wore a Vietnam-era "Fuck the Draft" t-shirt to a courtroom. 

Another Ninth Circuit ruling found that "actual disruption means actual disruption. It does not mean constructive disruption, technical disruption, virtual disruption, nunc pro tunc disruption, or imaginary disruption." Furthermore, public bodies may not define "disruption" to suit their needs, the court found.

Free speech at open meetings of government officials is a "fundamental" right of citizenship protected by the constitution and by California's Brown Act, Wagner says. (The commission's Tefank argues that the proposed rules are good with Brown).

"Any restrictions the government imposes on speech at open and public meetings must be viewpoint neutral and reasonable," Wagner writes.

"Language throughout the [proposed] policy emphasizing the need for "courtesy," "respect," and "businesslike" interactions further suggests that the board may apply Section V [removal and possible arrest] to restrict speech that it finds indecorous even when that speech is not accompanied by disruptive conduct," her letter states.

She writes that the commission needs to go back to the drawing board and "revise the proposed policy to make clear that mere speech will not constitute a disruption and to adhere to that rule in enforcement of any new policy."

We reached out to Black Lives Matter over the weekend and were waiting to hear back.

UPDATE at 3:05 p.m. Monday, Aug. 31, 2015: Calling Black Lives Matter "a solid group of Los Angelenos who are particularly concerned about the way in which the Los Angeles Police Department polices Black communities," group organizer Melina Abdullah responded to the commission's proposal with mistrust and ire:

The proposed "Rules for Public Attendance and Participation at Meetings of the Board of Police Commissioners" is one of the most blatant efforts to silence an engaged public in recent memory and a direct attack on Black Lives Matter and the Black public ...

Rather than viewing the high level of participation as a nod to the democratic process, the Police Commission has taken a staunchly adversarial stance, yelling at participants, telling them to "shut up," refusing to listen to public comments, engaging their smart phones rather than listening to the voices of residents that they are supposed to represent, and running off into a side room every time they are challenged on their behavior and lack of action around this dire community issue. The Commission is supposed to be a civilian commission, representing the public. Instead, it behaves as public adversaries, giving an undue amount of deference to the police department that it is supposed to monitor and oversee. Rather than attempting to establish rules of "decorum" for the public, the Commission might want to reflect on its own lack of respect for the public that it is supposed to represent.

... The Commission cannot put a limit on free speech. ... The notion that "violating" rules that are set up to silence an engaged citizenry could make one subject to arrest is one of the most repressive proposals that I have ever seen.

... Perhaps Commissioners who are charged with representing the public should actually come from a public process rather than being able to buy their seats through campaign contributions to the Mayor who appoints them. We have attempted to engage the Mayor in a community process by garnering near unanimous community support for globally recognized public safety expert Aqeela Sherrills to fill the open seat left by Paula Madison and the Mayor has completely ignored us, instead putting forward the name of another wealthy individual who has been a heavy donor to his campaign and has no background in public safety. It could very well be that the Commission is taking the lead of a Mayor who also treats the public…especially the Black public…with disdain and disrespect. It may be time for the community to demand a complete overhaul of the Commission and police oversight in this City.  


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