“Cowboy Culture” on the Rise Among Police in Los Angeles

Despite its reputation for tolerance and liberalism, Los Angeles has long been home to some of the most abusive law enforcement units in the nation. In the 1990s, the brutal beating of Rodney King, the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) Rampart Scandal, and stories of gangs inside the LA County Sheriff’s Department pervaded media. In response to public outrage and rebellion, special investigations were launched, the Christopher Commission formed, changes in leadership were made, and officials publicly committed to reform. With the lifting of the federal consent decree in 2009 (imposed in 2001 in the aftermath of the Rampart scandal when a Department of Justice investigation found patterns of excessive force, false arrests, and unreasonable searches and seizures), and significant investment in the public relations of policing, Los Angeles has almost completely buried its previous reputation.

However, the spike in recent police-related killings, including the deaths of four people in 24 hours, presents a critical contradiction about whether law enforcement has actually been substantively reformed or if it’s largely a façade. It further begs the question of whether or not Los Angeles policing units are operating as the "Wild West," defined by vigilante justice that includes the prompt hanging of “suspects.”

A blatant embrace of “cowboy culture” enables police to harass, arrest, brutalize, and kill community members with impunity.

The killings by police on June 6 took place across a wide swath of the county: Atwater Village, San Gabriel, Willowbrook, and Inglewood. Several things are troubling about this: the volume of killings; the exclusive targeting of Black and Latino victims; the minimal detail given on each case; and the virtual erasure of the stories from national headlines.

Each of these factors, along with the election of a new sheriff, Alex Villanueva, and the ongoing refusal of the Los Angeles County District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, to hold officers accountable when they kill or abuse residents, suggest a resurgence of the “cowboy culture” that once defined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, LAPD, and law enforcement in the county more generally.

On June 6, the LAPD began the spree around 12 p.m. They killed a man in the Atwater Village neighborhood who was reportedly carrying an “edged weapon.” In the early afternoon, a second man died in San Gabriel after reportedly barricading himself in a home and throwing fireworks at sheriff’s deputies. SWAT was called in, but there are no reports of dispatching mental health workers to assess the situation with a man who some reports identified as a homeless relative having a domestic dispute.

Around 7:30 that evening in Willowbrook (between Watts and Compton), sheriff deputies killed Ryan Twyman. Eyewitnesses told The North Star that the freshly minted 24-year-old was sitting in a car in an apartment complex parking lot socializing with friends and family when sheriff’s deputies rolled up. They dragged his friend from the car, beat him to the point of hospitalization, and unloaded a handgun into Ryan. Then they returned to their patrol car, grabbed a shotgun, and shot him several more times. They subsequently beat and arrested Ryan’s girlfriend and charged her with resisting arrest. Ryan was unarmed.

Finally, at approximately 10:30 that night, just a few miles from where Ryan died, sheriff’s deputies killed Edtwon Stamps in Inglewood. His mother, Kala Jordon, told KTLA that Edtwon was a 27-year-old bus driver who had left a nearby hotel room to pick up a pizza. Sheriff reports are convoluted. They assert that Stamps had entered a patrol car and that a gun was recovered at the scene. What they do not clarify is why Stamps was approached in the first place, simply stating that they “encountered” him. The killing of four people by police in one metropolitan area in a single day is outrageous.

Almost as disturbing is how both the district attorney’s office and mainstream media have generally ignored the killings, especially when juxtaposed with the promises of accountability and attention that horse deaths at the Santa Anita race tracks received during the same period. According to Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, which uses a combination of publicly available sources--including the Los Angeles Times’ Homicide Report and the California Attorney General’s Open Justice desktop plus news reports--police in Los Angeles County have killed an estimated 532 mostly Black and Brown people during the last six years.

The killings of four people by police on June 6 is not a coincidence. Each killing warrants critique and condemnation. Every individual whose life officers have stolen deserves to have their stories told.

What we are experiencing is perhaps indicative of a trend, or a resurgence, of the cowboy style of policing that actively recruited violent white supremacists from the South to work in Los Angeles law enforcement. This gave birth to LAPD and Sheriff’s gangs and secret societies like the Jump Out Boys and the Lynwood Vikings.

Since her election in 2012, District Attorney Jackie Lacey has pressed charges against only one officer in approximately 532 cases, sending a signal that officers who kill will not be held accountable. Of course, this is in a broader national context of a president and federal administration that blatantly encourages police violence. When coupled with a new LAPD Chief, Michel Moore, who himself pulled the trigger in two officer-involved shootings, and the newly elected Sheriff Villanueva, who has protected and rehired deputies who have ties to sheriff gangs, we are in a state of cowboy policing.

So, what about Ryan and Edtwon, and the hundreds of other victims and potential victims? What this moment speaks to all of us is that we must be vigilant. We cannot afford to sit down even when we grow weary. Elected officials are feeding this resurgence. When they run for reelection, we must vote them out. When mainstream media shuts us out, we must use alternative media. When police run rampantly violent in our streets, we must form community alternatives. We must demand not only reform but also societal transformation. We must reimagine community-based public safety, not a form of policing that steals the lives of those like Ryan Twyman and Edtwon Stamps.

About the Author

Melina Abdullah is a senior writer for The North Star and professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. She was appointed to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission in 2014 and is a recognized expert on race, gender, class, and social movements. Abdullah is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, with subjects ranging from political coalition building to womanist mothering.