A shootout at a Newbury Park liquor store in June led Monday to a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing a controversial Los Angeles Police Department unit of using excessive force against a man after tailing him into Ventura County and allowing him to rob the store.
Attorneys for Robert Cunningham, a Ventura County murder suspect paralyzed from the waist down in the June 26 gunfight, accused the officers of firing shotguns and handguns with the intent of killing him.
The suit alleges that the 13 officers, members of the LAPD's Special Investigations Section (SIS), would have blown off Cunningham's head with a shotgun blast, but for the intervention of a captain from a nearby fire station.
Cunningham's alleged accomplice, Daniel Joseph Soly, was killed in the shootout. Prosecutors charged Cunningham, 32, with murder because they say he started the gunfight that led to Soly's death. He is also charged with robbery for allegedly holding up the South West Liquor and Deli as SIS officers watched.
Investigators said Cunningham popped out of an automobile's sunroof and opened fire on the police officers as they tried to arrest the pair after the robbery. Soly never fired his weapon and was shot at least 26 times, investigators said.
Cunningham is scheduled to appear in Ventura County Superior Court today, where his trial is expected to be delayed at least until next month, prosecutors said.
The Reseda man's public defender, Gary Windom, could not be reached for comment Monday. But he has said in previous interviews that the SIS' role in the shooting will play a central role in Cunningham's defense.
The suit, filed by attorneys Stephen Yagman of Venice and Richard H. Milliard of Los Angeles, asks for compensatory and punitive damages and other relief. Perhaps most significantly, the suit asks U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts to issue an injunction prohibiting the SIS from continuing its practice of following suspects, allowing the suspects to commit crimes "and then to murder them."
The suit also contends that in the Newbury Park incident "in their unbridled lust," SIS squad members even shot one another. One of the officers underwent surgery for a bullet that hit his abdomen below his bulletproof vest, tore through his bladder and exited through his back. The other officer underwent surgery to remove shrapnel that pierced his abdomen after a bullet splattered against his vest.
Monday's suit marks the latest controversy involving the SIS. A 1988 investigation by The Times revealed that the 19-member unit often followed violent criminals but did not arrest them until after the suspects committed robberies or burglaries--frequently leaving victims terrorized or injured.
Los Angeles Police Department records showed that between 1966 and 1988 SIS officers killed 23 suspects and wounded 23 others. "By 1992, SIS' totals had increased to 28 dead and 27 wounded in 45 separate shooting incidents," according to "Above the Law," a book about excessive use of force by police by professors Jerome H. Skolnick of UC Berkeley and James J. Fyfe of Temple University. Yagman attached to his brief 20 pages of the book describing incidents involving SIS officers.
"This is the fifth case I have brought against the 'death squad,' " Yagman said in an interview. "This is the first case in which we have asked that it be disbanded or taken control of so that it no longer murders at the end of its surveillance the people whom it has under surveillance. Previously, we only requested damages."
Despite the controversy over the unit's activities, there has been no change in SIS' mode of operations, according to Cmdr. Tim McBride, spokesman for the LAPD.
"In essence, it's the same as it's always been," McBride said. "They are a group of highly trained, highly competent individuals who specialize in saving lives. They follow desperate, armed criminals and routinely make arrests without incident," he added.
"Over the last eight years, they've been involved in less than one shooting per year, but of course Mr. Yagman would like for everyone to ignore the wonderful work they do and the people's lives that they save. I'm restrained by the city attorney's office from commenting on the specific allegations. The legal processes will have to take their course."
McBride said that none of the prior SIS shootings had been ruled "out of policy" by LAPD officials. He said that the department's internal review of the Ventura County shooting has not yet been completed.
According to the suit:
* The officers followed the robbery suspects across the Ventura County line and permitted them to rob a convenience store.
* After the robbers reentered their car, the officers then prevented the suspects from fleeing by car by ramming their cars into the robber's vehicle.
* "They then, without announcing themselves as police, opened fire approximately 15 shotgun blasts and shots from handguns; all with the intent of taking the law into their own hands, and murdering the occupants of the automobile."
* The officers shot Soly to death and would have killed Cunningham but for the fire captain's intervention.
The day after the incident, Lt. Larry Robertson of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department said that Soly was at the wheel when the shooting began, but that it was not clear whether he drew his gun or pointed it at the officers before he was shot to death. Robertson said that SIS officers had told investigators that Cunningham popped up through the car's sunroof to shoot at them with a .357 magnum revolver before they returned fire.
Correspondent Paul Elias in Ventura contributed to this report.