Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Officer Houston Tipping died on May 29, 2022, allegedly as the result of what the department claims was a “training accident” three days earlier. Tipping was participating in a simulated scenario in which he roleplayed as an individual confronting and resisting a bicycle patrol officer; he departed the simulation with injuries consistent with a person who had been “‘dropped’ on his head,” including serious head trauma, a broken neck, paralysis, fractured ribs, and a lacerated liver. He succumbed to these injuries three days later.
This episode was shocking enough and already posed grave questions regarding the training policies and procedures of the LAPD: how on earth does a police officer die while engaged in a bicycle training exercise as basic and routine as this one? But new details have since emerged that cast doubt on the LAPD’s version of events and make Tipping’s death appear possibly more sinister.
Shortly before he was killed, Tipping had reported a sexual assault by several of his fellow officers and was cooperating with a related investigation. One of those officers, who is among several accused of gang raping a victim in July of 2021, was reportedly involved in the lethal training accident.
The LAPD launched an internal inquiry, and promptly determined that the incident was merely an accident. The findings of the inquiry indicate that Tipping was roleplaying opposite an anonymous counterpart, referred to only as “Officer M.” During the training exercise, Tipping and Officer M began “grappling” with one another; they ended up in a position that witnesses described as a “bear hug,” at which point Officer M placed Tipping in a headlock and the two “fell to the floor.”
The impact of this fall seems to have broken Tipping’s neck and injured his spinal cord, paralyzing him. The LAPD’s report alleges that, in the process of trying to restore his breathing and pulse, attending officers broke several of Tipping’s ribs. The report makes no mention of the lacerated liver, nor does it explain the presence of what a lawyer for Tipping’s family described as subdural hematomas (bleeding in the brain) on both sides of his head. The LAPD insists that no footage of Tipping’s death exists.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to believe that Tipping could have sustained these injuries simply by falling down. The nature and extremity of the damage to Tipping’s body strongly suggests premeditated violence or, at the very least, deliberate opportunistic force. And if it is true, as Tipping’s attorney Bradley Gage maintains, that the officer “responsible for hurting Tipping” was named in Tipping’s sexual assault allegations, the incident becomes even more alarming.
Of course, none of these facts constitute conclusive evidence that a crime occurred. Notably, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office ruled Tipping’s death an accident. But two things must be considered regarding this event.
Firstly, a longstanding, albeit informal, tradition of unaccountability exists within American policing. Dubbed the “Blue Wall of Silence,” it entails systemic refusal to report fellow officers for misconduct or to cooperate in any capacity with investigations into police misconduct. Officers who break this code and attempt to hold their peers liable for their misdeeds incur risks that include intimidation, termination of employment, or even imprisonment. Retaliation against officers who violate the Blue Wall of Silence is neither unprecedented nor even particularly rare; the history of American law enforcement is replete with such cases.
Secondly, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington found that police killings in the United States are dramatically and perhaps intentionally undercounted. According to the study, more than half of police killings in the last four decades may have been mislabeled and attributed to another cause of death, raising serious questions about the role that medical examiners play in their close collaboration with police departments.
In the wake of Tipping’s tragic death, the circumstances surrounding it, and the questions left unanswered by the LAPD’s internal inquiry, the city of Los Angeles must direct an independent investigation. A civilian commission recently has been investigating misconduct within the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, for example. Similar measures must be taken in order to ensure that members of the LAPD are emboldened to take action against corrupt officers, and are protected from retributive violence when they do.
No justice or peace can prevail in American policing while the Blue Wall of Silence still stands.