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Exclusive: LAPD Launches Internal Investigation Into Photo of Nearly 40 Unmasked Officers Socializing in DTLA

9:54 AM PST on February 12, 2021

Photo by Brian Feinzimer

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]n Wednesday afternoon, L.A. Taco contributor Brian Feinzimer was heading home on his motorcycle when he noticed a familiar sight near Union Station—a large group of mostly unmasked Los Angeles Police Department officers congregating. Less than an hour prior, Feinzimer observed the group repelling off of a building while on his way to meet up with a friend.

Shot on the same day that the Center For Disease Control (CDC) released new evidence showing that wearing two masks can decrease the rate of COVID-19 transmission by up to 96.5 percent, in one wide frame Feinzimer’s photo shows nearly 40 officers, the majority if not all of them without masks, in tightly packed groups socializing near the C. Erwin Piper Technical Center. Nearly half of the employees seen in the photo appear to be Metropolitan Division Officers—a troubled group of LAPD officers that includes the specialized SWAT and K9 units—based on the patches seen on their sleeves. Later that day, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that all city vaccination sites will close for two days due to a shortage of vaccines.

Just down the street from the mask-less cops, hundreds of people lined up for vaccines at the Lincoln Heights walk-up vaccination site. "It looked like Disneyland," Feinzimer said. Photo by Brian Feinzimer
Hundreds of people lined up for vaccines at the Lincoln Heights walk-up vaccination site. "It looked like Disneyland," Feinzimer said. Photo by Brian Feinzimer

As a photojournalist that spent most of his summer dodging less-lethal munitions propelled by law enforcement at protests this past year, Feinzimer has seen and documented his fair share of unmasked law enforcement officers–but this is one of the largest groups he’s seen.

Since the start of the pandemic, the public has consistently documented law enforcement officers seemingly violating basic public health orders to wear masks, particularly during the demonstrations that took place over the summer. Prior to the civil unrest, in early May, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore sent a notice to all personnel, advising them to wear masks if they “come in contact with other employees and/or the public.” According to the notice from the chief, “the only exception is when wearing facial coverings could jeopardize officer safety.” During protests, Chief Moore was photographed violating his own policy to wear a mask.

In 11 months, the department has confirmed nearly 2,600 cases of COVID-19 amongst both sworn and civilian employees, approximately 20 percent of the department's workforce, according to city data. More than half of those cases have been confirmed in the past two months.

While cases and hospitalizations have been declining amongst the general public as well as amongst police officers, L.A. County’s numbers still remain high and the county is regularly reporting over 200 coronavirus related deaths per day.  Since March, eight sworn and civilian personnel at the Los Angeles Police Department have died from coronavirus. Half of all COVID-19 related deaths amongst LAPD employees have occurred in the past three weeks.

According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, there are currently twelve COVID-19 outbreaks at LAPD stations across the city. The LAPD’s Southeast, Southwest and Central divisions have seen the largest outbreaks, with more than 200 employees across those stations currently testing positive for coronavirus.

If You See Something Say Something

In his notice, Chief Moore states that public complaints regarding employees not wearing masks should be “handled in the same manner as any other public complaint.” Generally, complaints are forwarded to the internal affairs division of the Los Angeles Police Department for review.

Since the summer, marathon runner, William G., has filed over 50 formal complaints against 70 law enforcement officers. “Some complaints had as many as 12 cops,” William told L.A. Taco over Twitter, the platform where he regularly posts videos of law enforcement officers refusing to wear masks and at times mocking health orders.

William was inspired to participate in the protests over the summer after witnessing the aftermath of an interaction between the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and a group of skaters. The viral video that pushed William to ultimately begin filming the police, showed a sheriff’s deputy shooting less-lethal munitions out of a patrol vehicle near Hollywood. 

The kids ran around the corner where I live and were surrounded from three sides and plastered with pepper balls as I watched. I then went inside my building and when I came back out there was a kid laying on the ground. We pulled him in the gate and he said the sherriffs (sic) hit him with their cars.”

“That changed me.” After that experience, William began protesting but that didn't satisfy him. So he began filming the police.

In addition to the complaints that he’s filed himself, William told us that the office of the inspector general has taken it upon themselves to investigate complaints on his behalf. “I noticed this when detectives from internal affairs asked me for dates and locations of some stuff I posted in August and September but never filed.” William added that he saw a shift in the inspector general's response around the time of the local elections—when a wave of progressive reformers was “swept in.”

“Before that they weren’t responsive. Overnight everything changed.”

But so far, William hasn’t received a final decision for any of the complaints that he filed. The process can take months to complete and rarely leads to discipline. Out of more than 3,000 complaints in 2019, only 10 percent were found to be valid.

In response to detailed questions sent to Captain Stacy Spell and LAPD spokesperson Joshua Rubenstein, the LAPD’s Media Relation’s Department told L.A. Taco that they’ve “initiated an internal investigation into the circumstances” of Feinzimer’s photo. Questions related to the Metropolitan Division were reportedly forwarded to the division but not responded to.

Update 10:30 AM - In a new statement, the LAPD told L.A. Taco: "The LAPD closely tracks CDC guidance and evolves our requirements accordingly. The vast majority of officers have continued to wear a face covering or mask whenever possible." The LAPD said that "progressive disciplinary action" has been taken when officers were found to not be wearing masks but didn't offer more details on how employees were disciplined.

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