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LAPD Prevails Over Civilian Overseers

Police boards overruled commission's findings that four shootings were improper. Panels have a history of meting out uneven penalties.

June 22, 2003|Matt Lait and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

LAPD disciplinary boards have overturned the city's Police Commission at least four times in recent years, allowing officers to escape punishment for shootings that the department's civilian bosses ruled improper, a Times investigation has found.

Even in shooting cases in which there was no dispute between the police boards and the commission, penalties were often no more severe than might be imposed when an officer lost a piece of equipment, failed to show up in court or got into a traffic accident. Moreover, the LAPD has struggled for years to develop specific punishment guidelines and has meted out inconsistent penalties in shooting cases.

In a pair of shootings that occurred just months apart in 2000, for instance, one officer violated department policy when he shot and killed an unarmed man. A few months later, another broke the same rules when he shot a dog. The officer who shot the dog was given the heavier penalty.

Los Angeles' mayor, the former inspector general of the LAPD and members of the Police Commission are among those questioning a system that some view as dangerously capricious. In addition, Police Chief William J. Bratton and Police Commission President Rick Caruso contend that police disciplinary panels, known as boards of rights, have undermined civilian oversight of the LAPD and limited the chief's authority to manage the institution.

"The system makes no sense," Caruso said last week. "I think it should be disbanded and a new one put in place."

The department's disciplinary system received new scrutiny last week after the disclosure that the officer who fatally shot a homeless woman, Margaret Mitchell, in 1999 had not been punished, although the civilian Police Commission had determined that he should have been.

The Times, as part of an investigation of LAPD shootings, has identified three other recent shootings that, like the Mitchell case, were found "out of policy" by the Police Commission but in which the commission's findings were then effectively overturned by members of internal disciplinary panels, with the result that the officers involved were not punished.

In a fifth case, which the city paid $1.1 million to settle, the officer was given an "official reprimand" as punishment, but that was later rescinded by the chief of police. All but one of the officers involved in the shootings remain on the force.

At the LAPD, a police shooting is investigated by a special team of detectives. Those investigators interview witnesses, collect evidence and compile a report, which is forwarded to a shooting review board. That board analyzes the incident to assess the officer's tactics leading up to the shooting and the decision to fire the gun. The police chief determines, on the basis of their work, whether the officer's tactics were sound and whether the shooting complied with department rules.

The Police Commission then considers the chief's analysis and makes the final determination on the propriety of the shooting. If the commission rules that a shooting violated policy, its members say, they expect discipline to be imposed. Such instances are referred from the commission back to the police chief. If the chief is seeking a long suspension or dismissal, he refers the case to a board of rights, made up of two LAPD command officers and one civilian. Any officer can also request a hearing before a board of rights. Although it comes after the commission's consideration of the case, the board of rights hearing is the first step in the process in which an accused officer is given the opportunity to mount a defense and to cross-examine any witnesses testifying against him. The chief, under LAPD rules, may reduce the punishment imposed by a board but may not increase it.

In most cases, boards accept the judgment of the commission and impose some form of punishment. But in some, such as the Mitchell case, board members have defied the commission, the chief, or both.

In 1999, for instance, Officer Wayne Cespedes and a partner were responding to a radio call about a man who was believed to be either mentally ill or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. When Cespedes saw what he thought was a knife in the suspect's hand, the officer drew his gun and took cover behind the door of his police car, according to police documents. The suspect then stepped toward Cespedes, coming within about 22 feet of where the officer was standing, documents state. Fearing that he or his partner -- who was trying to retrieve a beanbag shotgun from the trunk of the police car -- was about to be stabbed, Cespedes fired twice. The suspect, later identified as 56-year-old Gus Woods, died from a shot to the chest. Investigators later discovered that he had been holding an 8 1/2-inch metal rod.

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