Dan Walters

Are our softer criminal laws a factor in officer’s killing?

Whittier Police Chief Jeff Piper speaks at a news conference about the death of Officer Keith Boyer on Monday, blaming softer criminal laws for allowing Boyer’s alleged killer to be freed from county jail.
Whittier Police Chief Jeff Piper speaks at a news conference about the death of Officer Keith Boyer on Monday, blaming softer criminal laws for allowing Boyer’s alleged killer to be freed from county jail. Los Angeles Times

Polly Klaas, a 12-year-old Petaluma schoolgirl, was enjoying a slumber party with two friends in 1993 when a recently released felon, wielding a knife, entered her bedroom, tied up the friends and disappeared into the night with the terrified girl.

Richard Allen Davis confessed to strangling Polly, led authorities to her shallow grave two months later and was sentenced to death.

The horrific nature of the crime and Davis’ defiant attitude sparked revulsion that quickly manifested itself in California’s famous – or infamous – “three strikes and you’re out” law aimed at keeping repeat offenders behind bars.

Could the wanton killing of Whittier police Officer Keith Boyer have a similar galvanizing effect?

Boyer, a 27-year police veteran, was killed and his partner wounded Monday as they investigated an auto accident.

The driver of one car whipped out a pistol and began firing; the officers returned fire and wounded the gunman, who was arrested.

The alleged shooter, identified as Michael C. Mejia, 26, is a career criminal with a history of drugs and violence, and had been released from the Los Angeles County jail. Police also believe he killed his cousin and stole his cousin’s car, which he was driving when he rear-ended another car in Whittier.

“We need to wake up,” Whittier Police Chief Jeff Piper said as he announced Boyer’s death. “Enough is enough. This is a senseless, senseless tragedy that did not need to be.”

Piper referred to recent moves by Gov. Jerry Brown, the Legislature and voters to soften penalties for crimes, reduce the state prison population and indirectly force county jails to release low-level offenders.

Both violent and nonviolent crimes have increased in California in recent years, although they still are well below historic highs, and many law enforcement authorities have blamed softer penalties, saying that too many criminals who should be behind bars are now on the street.

“We’re putting people back on the street that aren’t ready to be back on the street,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell told the Los Angeles Times, pointing to two ballot measures and several bills passed by the Legislature.

McDonnell referred to his jail as a “default prison system” because felons who once would have been in state prison are now being diverted into local jails under “realignment,” which was aimed at reducing overcrowding in state prisons.

From the state’s standpoint, it’s been a roaring success because the prison system now has tens of thousands fewer inmates, satisfying pressure from federal judges. But as more felons wind up in local jails, McDonnell and other sheriffs must release lower-level offenders to make room for them.

The Legislature should delve into what is happening and whether these recent law changes have gone too far – whether, as Chief Piper says, “enough is enough.”

Instead, the state Senate’s criminal justice committees devoted several hours on Tuesday to criticizing local jail authorities for not allowing inmates to have enough face-to-face visitations with their families.

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