A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by the family of Hong Il Kim, whom police shot to death in an Orange mall parking lot in 1996 after a televised car chase that prompted controversy about the officers' tactics, attorneys said Friday.
Officials from the Orange and Westminster police departments, which were named in the suit, said the decision will allow officers to do their jobs in dangerous situations without second-guessing themselves.
"This just lifts a dark cloud over our head," said Dean Richards, acting chief for the Orange Police Department.
The Orange County district attorney's office exonerated the four officers involved from any criminal wrongdoing. That investigation in 1996 concluded that the officers acted in self-defense when they fired about 30 shots at Kim's Toyota 4-Runner, killing him with a shot to the eye.
U.S. District Judge Linda H. McLaughlin, in a ruling Monday, similarly concluded that the officers' conduct was "objectively reasonable."
The first shot was fired as Kim, 27, was "rapidly accelerating" toward the officer, threatening his life, McLaughlin wrote. Three other officers began shooting when they felt that their colleague's life was in danger, according to court documents.
Requiring officers to find and choose the best alternative when their lives are in danger "would require them to exercise superhuman judgment," the judge wrote. "It would also entangle the courts in endless second-guessing of police decisions made under stress."
But Kim's family maintained that the Orange undercover officer who initiated the shooting unnecessarily put himself in front of the utility vehicle and therefore endangered himself.
At their home in Buena Park on Friday, Kim's family called the decision outrageous.
"The most tragic part of this dreadful incident is that the policemen murdered a man over a traffic violation," said Rodney Chai, Kim's brother-in-law. He said the family might appeal.
Kim, who had been convicted of three misdemeanor violations, including theft, was driving a relative's vehicle on Feb. 14, 1996, when he made a reckless right turn, catching the attention of a Westminster police officer. A chase began, reaching 95 mph through several cities. It ended in an Orange mini-mall at Chapman Avenue and Newport Boulevard, where patrol cars rammed the Toyota into a parking space against a wall.
Two officers from Orange, one from Westminster and a California Highway Patrol officer circled the truck on foot with guns drawn. The first officer, who was standing between the wall and the truck, fired as the vehicle moved toward him. By the time the fusillade ended, Kim had been struck at least six times. No officers or bystanders were injured, and police did not find a gun in the vehicle.
Because the shooting was broadcast on television, it drew public criticism, said attorney Bruce D. Praet, who represented Orange.
"Everyone was quick to criticize these officers in the comfort of the aftermath," Praet said. "They weren't the ones looking down the hood of an accelerating vehicle about to run them over."
Five experts and at least two Orange County police chiefs who reviewed the shooting at the request of The Times said it could have been avoided and that the officers had committed a series of tactical errors.
One of those experts, Joseph D. McNamara, a former San Jose chief, said he understands the reasoning behind the ruling, but still maintains that "the police had put themselves in danger unnecessarily."
McNamara, now a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, said reforms within police departments through training and written policies could help minimize the risk to officers and others. Orange and Westminster police officials said they reviewed the departmental procedures following the shooting and found them to be adequate.
Westminster's Capt. Andrew Hall said, "We viewed and reviewed the incident over and over. . . . All things considered, the officers did a pretty good job."
After the district attorney's office decided not to pursue charges against the officers, Kim's parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court, alleging that his civil rights had been violated. The suit also alleged that the officers acted "without legal provocation [and] used excessive deadly force."
The Westminster Police Department was dropped from the case a few months ago, after the judge determined that shots fired by its officer had not hit Kim. This week, McLaughlin granted a motion by Orange police to dismiss the case altogether.
"In our mind, we kind of knew this end would come," Hall said. "It was just nice to get closure from it for our officers' sake."
Praet, a former police officer, said the officers involved were elated by the ruling.
"No police officer looks forward to the day he has to take human life," Praet said. "The officers didn't elect the outcome. Mr. Kim did. They were forced to defend themselves."