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'Problem Shooting' Troubles Bratton

Two officers used deadly force against a suspect at the same time a third fired nonlethal weapon.

August 03, 2004|Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

An incident in which two officers fatally shot a suspect who was hit at the same time with a stun gun fired by a third officer has been called a "problem shooting" by Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton.

Erick Jerome Garcia, 36, was shot in the early hours of July 16 at a Greyhound bus terminal in the 1700 block of 7th Street.

He was struck as he crawled through an opening for a baggage scale beneath a ticket counter. Police said he was brandishing a 6-inch metal rod resembling a tent spike that he refused to drop.

Officers are reviewing videotape taken by security cameras at the facility, showing the deadly encounter from five different angles, according to police sources.

At the center of the investigation is the question of why one officer chose to use a nonlethal Taser gun while two others felt justified in using deadly force.

"I have significant concerns about that shooting," Bratton said.

Based upon a preliminary investigation, Bratton assigned Officers Charles Wunder, who has twice before shot at suspects, and Edward Rocha to desk duty.

Without discussing specifics, Bratton compared the incident to the widely publicized televised beating of a Compton man by LAPD officers. That case has been described as involving apparent tactical missteps that resulted in a more serious use of force.

The videotape is being reviewed to determine the sequence of events that led up to the shooting and the subsequent actions by at least one police sergeant, who supervised the officers at the scene.

Initial accounts described two officers firing at Garcia, who had been acting erratically and had thrown a computer at officers. He allegedly dived through the space beneath the counter with a small, pointed metal object.

But LAPD sources said the videotape shows a man at the bus station crawling with the metal object at his side, and being shot by officers from at least 12 feet away

Craig Harvey, director of operations for the Los Angeles coroner's office, said Garcia was shot four times: in the head, chest and leg. There also were two wounds from a Taser.

Bratton said the shooting posed "a lot of tactical issues."

The Garcia shooting is one of several use-of-force incidents that Bratton has called questionable.

Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said Monday that Bratton told him there are "tactical issues" with the shooting. Baker said he is not aware of any problems.

"Everything that I've been told from our attorney is that they believe the tactics were good and they didn't see any problems," Baker said.

The shooting was initially characterized by LAPD officials as a "suicide by cop," a term used by police when a suspect purposely threatens the lives of officers to provoke them to open fire.

It began shortly after 2 a.m. when off-duty LAPD officers working as security guards reported that a man was acting erratically and picking fights in the bus depot parking lot, according to a department spokeswoman.

Several officers responded about 2:20 a.m. and confronted the suspect, who police said picked up a computer and threw it at the officers before jumping over a ticket counter.

Garcia allegedly brandished the metal rod and refused to surrender. Officers Robert Ruiz, 43, and Karen Garay, 35, shot at him with a stun gun, which delivers 50,000 volts of electricity and is designed to immobilize a suspect. Police sources familiar with the investigation said those shots missed the suspect.

After Garcia continued to refuse to surrender, Officer Lance Blake, 34, fired several times with a beanbag shotgun -- also a nonlethal force -- but missed because the suspect shielded himself with a floor mat.

The man then dared the officers to "shoot him with a real gun," according to LAPD investigators, and dived toward officers with the metal rod.

Wunder, 39, and Rocha, 35, opened fire, killing the Lake Elizabeth man. At the same time, LAPD sources said, a Taser also was fired at Garcia by a third officer whose name has not been disclosed.

The Garcia shooting is part of a 70% jump in officer-involved shootings from 13 in 2003 to 22 in 2004, according to LAPD statistics.

Total incidents in which officers used deadly force, including shootings of suspects, animals, accidental discharges, in-custody deaths, canine bites and restraint holds, also rose, to 111 total incidents in 2004 from 72 such incidents the year before.

Wunder has been involved in two prior shootings. In September 2001, he fired four shots at a suspect who had shot at him and wounded his partner. The shooting was found to be justified. In July 2002, he fired two shots at a suspect during a struggle with officers, a shooting also found to be justified.

"We have a full investigation," Bratton said of the Greyhound bus depot shooting. "The inspector general was very quickly on it."

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