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Slaying by Officer Is Ruled Justified

LAPD: Board finds no fault with deadly force after man at Halloween party allegedly pointed replica gun at police.

October 23, 2001|SCOTT GLOVER and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The police shooting of an actor who allegedly pointed a replica handgun at an officer at a Halloween party last year was justified because the officer believed the gun was real and feared for his life, a Los Angeles Police Department internal review board has found.

The board recommended to Police Chief Bernard C. Parks that the shooting by Officer Tarriel Hopper be found "in policy," meaning Hopper should not be disciplined for firing the shots that killed 39-year-old Anthony Dwain Lee, according to police officials familiar with the board's findings. Lee was shot in the back as he stood with two other men in a Benedict Canyon mansion.

While the board found no fault with Hopper's use of deadly force, members recommended that the officer undergo additional training to improve his tactics, according to the police officials.

Parks has since taken the case to the Los Angeles Police Commission, whose members have the final word on whether a shooting was within department rules. Parks has the options of either adopting the findings of the LAPD's Use of Force Review Board or drafting findings of his own.

LAPD and commission officials declined to comment, saying the matter remained under review. The five-member civilian panel is expected to debate the shooting, and likely issue a ruling, during a closed-door session today.

According to police, Hopper and his partner were responding to complaints about noise when they arrived at the house on Halloween night. They were walking down an exterior walkway searching for the owners of the house in the 9700 block of Yoakum Drive when Hopper shined a flashlight into a room at the rear of the house and saw Lee pointing a gun at him, police have said.

Alcohol, Cocaine in Victim's System

Hopper, a three-year officer at the time of the shooting, fired nine shots at Lee. According to an autopsy report, he hit the actor once in the back of the head and three times in the back. Tests also revealed the presence of alcohol and cocaine in Lee's system.

Parks called a news conference after the release of the autopsy report, at which he sought to reconcile Lee's wounds with the officer's account that the actor was facing him and pointing a gun at him when he fired in self-defense.

Parks said Lee may have ducked or turned as Hopper began firing. "It's clear from the angle of the shots there was movement by Mr. Lee," the chief said. Parks also cited an unnamed witness who purportedly backed Hopper's claim.

Some friends of Lee and neighbors of the party house questioned whether Hopper and his partner helped precipitate the shooting by going into the backyard instead of waiting by the front door for the hosts of the party.

Lee's sister, Tina Lee-Vogt, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Hopper and the LAPD in June, charging that Hopper's shooting was unjustified.

Attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who successfully defended O.J. Simpson largely by challenging the competency and honesty of LAPD officers who investigated Simpson's ex-wife's slaying, said he plans to take on the department's handling of the Lee shooting.

Cochran said last year that he plans to scrutinize the tactics and training of Hopper, and all LAPD officers. He argued that Hopper's actions leading up to the shooting contributed to what all sides agree was a tragic outcome.

Neither Cochran nor an associate handling the case could be reached for comment Monday.

As part of their review of the shooting, LAPD officials hired an expert to create a computer reenactment of the incident based on the physical evidence. That reenactment supported the officer's version, police said.

Poor Communication Between Officers

The Use of Force Review Board, comprising several command staff members and an officer of Hopper's rank, expressed concern that there was poor communication between Hopper and his partner during the incident. The board members also noted that the officers' radios did not function properly because they were in a so-called "dead zone," according to police officials familiar with the board's review.

The city attorney's office, which is defending the department and Hopper in the wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Lee's family, commissioned a ballistics expert to review the evidence. That expert also concluded that the evidence supported the officer's version.

Deputy City Atty. Cory Brente said Hopper's actions were "lawful and reasonable." The fact that it was later determined that Lee was armed with a foam rubber replica handgun apparently used as a movie prop does not change the fact that Hopper's actions were reasonable, Brente said.

Brente said he has interviewed several of the witnesses and none has contradicted Hopper's account of the shooting.

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