It’s 11 A.M. on a Tuesday last March, and Matthew Johnson, the president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, is seated front and center with the four other part-time civilian commissioners in a large theater-style meeting room at the LAPD’s headquarters downtown. On today’s agenda is approval of a potentially historic new policy intended to decrease the high number of LAPD shootings. But as has been the case for years now, the angry, overwhelmingly black overflow crowd is hurling obscenity-laden invective at the commission—and particularly at Johnson, who is also African American. One person tells him to “shut the fuck up!”; another keeps calling him “house Negro.”
Johnson knew that he had a difficult road ahead when Mayor Eric Garcetti asked him to join the commission in 2015. But after seeing protests over police shootings and abuse explode across the nation in 2014, he felt compelled to take the post, which is unpaid and part-time: Police abuse had become the civil rights issue of the 21st century for young African Americans. Johnson wanted to change that dynamic, and the commission was the best way to go about doing that.
“Even before I accepted this position,” he says, “I started doing a lot of research on police reform. And I found that Los Angeles was unique in the way civilian oversight is structured and that a civilian can actually come in and make a real difference. There’s no other civilian commission—certainly in any medium or large city—that has the resources and the power we do to make change.”
That wasn’t always the case. A holdover from the good government Progressive era of Teddy Roosevelt, the five-member Los Angeles Police Commission is tasked with setting LAPD policy and monitoring its implementation. But between 1950 and the 1992 riots, the commission rarely had the stomach to challenge the department, despite appalling numbers of unarmed civilians being killed by officers too quick to pull the trigger or to apply choke holds using their batons.
In fact, the commission allowed former police chief Daryl Gates, whose egregious leadership was essentially responsible for the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed, to write his own civil service evaluations—all of them positive.
Gates was nonetheless forced to retire after the riots, and the commissioners effectively fired the next two chiefs, who in their collective ten years on the job failed to make the lasting changes the city was so desperate for. A new period of genuine reform followed with police chief William Bratton and his successor, current chief Charlie Beck. Since the nationwide protests in 2014 over police shootings and abuse, the commission has been seeking yet more fundamental change. In 2015, under then president Steve Soboroff, it mandated the use of body cameras for officers and dash cams in patrol cars—important steps in assuring officer accountability, especially with shootings. And since becoming president in 2015, Johnson has been pursuing changes to the use-of-force policy in an effort to reduce shootings.
A 49-year-old father of four, he is a managing partner at the entertainment law firm of Ziffren Brittenham. While he doesn’t talk much about the strains that come with his work on the commission, he’s clearly paid a personal price for taking it on. Black Lives Matter protestors have picketed his Sherman Oaks residence and barged into his Sherman Oaks office, and he got a restraining order against an activist who showed up at his home after he had commented on one of Johnson’s sons during a tirade at a commission meeting (a remark Johnson declines to discuss today).
The March commission meeting took place shortly after, and the policy change it yielded marks the crowning achievement of Johnson’s two-year stint as president, which comes to an end in a month or so. “Upon my appointment I knew I had a limited window as commission president to work through my agenda,” he says. “I believe that the ticking clock actually helped me stay focused.”
It was a long haul to get to this point. Johnson grew up working class in the segregated New Jersey town of Highland Park. His father was a firefighter; his mother, a schoolteacher. She pushed him toward success and fought hard to ensure that her son got into those AP classes that helped him earn acceptance at Rutgers University. As a kid, Johnson learned that simply walking or riding his bike could mean being stopped and questioned by the police, but it wasn’t until he was in college that he experienced the peril that comes with being a young black man in America. He was driving home on a cold winter night, doing the speed limit as cars whizzed by him on the New Jersey Turnpike, when state troopers pulled him over without cause and handcuffed him on the side of the road. Refusing his pleas to let him put on a jacket, the police insisted he was ferrying drugs and searched his car. All Johnson kept thinking was, “Please, Lord, don’t let them plant drugs on me.” He’s carried that memory with him to this day, though he’s quick to note that he met many good cops through his father.
While attending law school at New York University, he fell in with a group that remains tight to this day. “All of us were incredibly poor graduate students—young men of color from humble beginnings who recognized our commonality,” says Dean Garfield, now the president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council. “We saw values in each other we wanted to emulate, and in the process became a support system for each other’s success.”
Johnson moved to L.A. two weeks after the ’92 riots, knowing nobody but sure he wanted to be an entertainment lawyer. Twenty-five years later, he’s counted Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, Forest Whitaker, and Sacha Baron Cohen among his clients. Making partner at any high-powered law firm can mean putting in hundred-hour weeks, but Johnson didn’t want to give up the community work he’d begun in law school. For the past 20 years he’s volunteered with Boys and Girls clubs, serving as their board president and as a national trustee. His wife, the documentary filmmaker and activist Yasmine Johnson, runs the Alliance of Moms, a nonprofit focused on serving pregnant and parenting teens in L.A.’s overwhelmed foster care system.
Johnson respected the difficulty of being a cop but had ideas about how policing could be done differently. After taking over as president, he spelled them out by writing a public assessment-slash-manifesto about the department and where he intended to focus.
A primary goal: reducing those officer-involved shootings.
So Johnson turned to best-practices literature. “He reads everything,” says Soboroff. “He’s a lawyer. He’s not looking at the yellow highlights in a report. And he knows what he doesn’t know. That’s really valuable.”
What de-escalation acknowledges is something that has been apparent in policing forever: What you do at the beginning of a situation often controls its outcome.
Johnson and the commission settled on a de-escalation policy advocated by the Obama administration’s Justice Department. “What de-escalation acknowledges is something that has been apparent in policing forever: What you do at the beginning of a situation often controls its outcome,” Charlie Beck recently tells me. “We see situations where officers have no choice but to use deadly force. But had they been more skilled a few minutes earlier—in their tactics and communication skills—it might have never gotten to the point where deadly force had to be used.” This is especially true when dealing with the mentally ill homeless or distraught people who can be talked down by officers who’ve taken precautions to take themselves out of immediate danger.
Johnson also needed to learn the lay of the land and build support from a long list of players: the mayor’s office, the chief of police, disparate community-advocacy groups, the LAPD command staff, and the LAPD’s politically powerful rank-and-file union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League. In the months before the vote, the league had been publicly blasting Johnson, warning that he was going to have blood on his hands if the policy passed. To get their sign-off, “Matt had to spend a lot of time doing things where there was no glory,” says fellow police commissioner Shane Goldsmith. “He was very disciplined at getting input and analysis—from the people around him, from stakeholders directly impacted, from the inspector general, from all different sources—and in finding where there was room for compromise while still creating a viable new policy. It was really an extraordinary accomplishment.”
Technically Johnson and the commission didn’t need the league’s approval, but long-lasting cultural change—particularly on an issue that can affect officers’ lives and careers—almost demanded it; there are too many ways cops can ignore, sabotage, and/or get around such a controversial policy shift. The league’s imprimatur would mean acceptance by cops on the street—grudgingly, perhaps, but acceptance all the same.
“There’s the political ability to get something done and the practical reality on the ground,” Johnson says. In this case, “if officers feel like they are under attack, they’ll stop policing. That’s not accomplishing the goals. I want them to embrace the policy so they can still do their jobs effectively in a way that is safer for the community. So buy-in from the union was big. At the end of the day, this was not an intellectual exercise.”
The payoff, says Beck, is that “now officers will be required to do everything they can to de-escalate a tense situation.” One group that Johnson couldn’t keep on board was the ACLU, which withheld its support essentially over one word: de-escalation tactics mus be used only when “possible.” (Johnson contends the ACLU didn’t understand the way the policy works.)
So far the policy seems to be taking hold. The commission and Beck have established exercises in which officers act out specific scenarios as part of their de-escalation training, and the department is in the process of equipping every patrol car with less lethal options, such as beanbag shotguns. Meanwhile, Johnson tells me, the commission is conducting a review aimed at expanding the release of videotaped use-of-force incidents to the public. And those body-cameras will be fully deployed by the first quarter of next year. That isn’t soon enough for activists, who still crowd the police commission meetings, but Johnson isn’t one to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. He’s got three years left on the commission, he says, “and I plan on staying actively engaged in seeing my initiatives through.”