On April 30, the Los Angeles Times endorsed Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell for LA County sheriff. Calling his three-year stint in Long Beach “short but impressive,” the Times named McDonnell the “candidate with the law-enforcement credentials, the integrity, the backbone and the skills to march the deputies, their leaders and their culture through a rigorous and soul-searching reinvention, all while raising performance standards and recommitting the department to transparency and humane and constitutional treatment of suspects, inmates and the public at large.”
The endorsement doesn't come as much of a surprise: McDonnell earned high praise from civic leaders during a decade at the Los Angeles Police Department, when he worked closely with former chief William J. Bratton in his efforts to reform that scandal-plagued department. Civil-rights activists in Long Beach have also commended McDonnell for trying to form bridges with the city's diverse population. But there's a dark side to his time in Long Beach that the Times inexplicably overlooked: the explosion of officer-involved shootings under his watch.
Let's take a quick look back.
On March 13, 2010, McDonnell began his first day on the job with a swearing-in ceremony at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center. Just more than three months later, on June 21, officers joined in a California Highway Patrol pursuit that ended on Shoreline Drive. Long Beach cops shot the driver, a suspected armed robber who had been chased all the way from Redlands, and retrieved a gun from the scene. Fair enough.
A few months later, on Oct. 6, officers responded to a call about a 19-year-old man with a sharp object menacing passersby on Fourth Street. The suspect stabbed an officer, and then he was shot; both went to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Ten days later, cops shot another man, this one armed with a gun; that suspect also went to the hospital with non-life-threatening wounds. A few weeks later, another cop took a shot at a fleeing suspect but didn't hit him. Nothing shocking there.
Here's where the shootings start getting sticky. On Dec. 12, 2010, 35-year-old Doug Zerby was drinking beer and playing with the nozzle of a garden hose outside a friend's apartment on a Sunday afternoon. Neighbors thought he had a gun and called police, who took tactical positions but failed to issue any verbal warnings or commands before shooting him 12 times (see “SoCal Police's Blood Money,” May 9, 2013). Zerby's family members sued the city, and a jury awarded them $6.5 million. McDonnell refused to be interviewed for that story, but in a press conference after the verdict, he called the shooting a “tragedy” and said he hoped the family now had “closure.”
Meanwhile, if the department's own press releases are any guide, officer-involved shootings grew exponentially each year, from just five such incidents in 2011 to nine the following year and a whopping 22 shootings in 2013. Of course, it stands to reason that the more crime that occurs in Long Beach, the more officer-involved shootings you'd tend to see. But the reverse is true here. Crime rates steadily dropped during McDonnell's watch, reaching their lowest levels in 41 years in 2013, the same year that also saw the greatest number of cop shootings in recent memory. (During one five-day period in September of that year, a record-setting three shootings were logged.)
In response to concern about the spike in officer-involved shootings, McDonnell finally held a press conference to address the issue; he attempted to turn a disturbing trend into a triumph, arguing that so many shootings simply reflected his officers' quick 911 response time. “There's been much discussion regarding officer-involved shootings during the past year,” he said. “In almost all of these incidents, the suspect shot at or used a weapon either directed at an officer or at a third-party victim.”
McDonnell also drew reporters' attention to an incident in November 2013, when officers shot a woman holding what turned out to be a fake gun. According to McDonnell, police spent no less than two hours trying to convince her to drop the “weapon” before she pointed it at them, was shot and survived. “It looked very real,” McDonnell argued. “So, a tragic situation—and one that we continuously look to find: Is there a better way to do what we're doing?”
McDonnell refused a Weekly interview request left with the police department; a similar request left with his campaign office went unanswered. However, it's important to note that all of the above shootings were investigated and cleared by both Long Beach Police's internal affairs and the LA County district attorney. And there is no evidence that any officer has ever been disciplined for a shooting under McDonnell, who has direct authority over whether to dismiss any of his employees. “The chief is ultimately the one who makes the decision,” said Sergeant Megan Zabel, a Long Beach Police Department spokesperson.
Given the 50 percent rise in cop shootings from year to year under McDonnell's tenure, it's somewhat surprising that 2014 seemed to be heading in a different direction. The first fatal officer-involved shooting of this year didn't occur until April 27, just three days before the Times endorsed McDonnell. In an eerie parallel to the Zerby shooting, this one also took place on an otherwise-idyllic late Sunday afternoon.
At around 3:30 p.m. on that day, Jason Conoscenti, a 36-year-old man who had allegedly resisted arrest while attempting to shoplift a pair of gardening shears at a Compton Target store, led LA County Sheriff's deputies on a chase to a dead-end, beach-access road just east of downtown Long Beach. After sitting in his vehicle for 15 minutes, Conoscenti exited, holding what witnesses described as a large wooden stick. Deputies shot him with a bean bag, but Conoscenti awkwardly ran down the stairs, pursued by a police dog.
Just as he reached the sand, Long Beach police officers struck Conoscenti with a hail of bullets. The officers stated they had heard gunshots and assumed the running suspect had just shot at police and was armed. They claimed they only fired after Conoscenti, who was unarmed, reached for his waistband.
But an eyewitness video—the first one to depict a fatal cop shooting in Long Beach history—contradicts the official story. Filmed from an apartment overlooking the street and staircase, the video shows Conoscenti running down the staircase toward the beach, which is completely empty. As he reaches the bottom of the stairs, several shots ring out, some striking the sand near him as he crumbles to the ground. As he writhes on the sand, Conoscenti can be seen lifting both his arms in surrender. This continues for a minute or so while the people in the apartment filming the incident express amazement that police aren't doing anything to help him.
“Why aren't they bringing any medical aid?” one woman asks.
Finally, five officers with guns drawn can be seen running up to a now-motionless Conoscenti. The footage ends as they roll him on his back, handcuff him and search the body. “He's not going to make it,” the woman says before the tape goes black.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).