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Police May Have Feared Arrestee Was Armed

June 26, 2004|Matt Lait and Scott Glover | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles police officer seen on videotape striking a man with a flashlight 11 times has told investigators he kicked and repeatedly hit the suspected car thief because another officer yelled that the man was armed with a gun, sources close to the investigation said Friday.

The beating of the African American suspect, which has once again thrust the Los Angeles Police Department into the national spotlight, came at the end of a 28-minute car chase early Wednesday. News footage of the incident shot from helicopters captured a scene that some department critics said was reminiscent of the 1991 beating of black motorist Rodney G. King by LAPD officers.

According to sources, Officer John J. Hatfield, the seven-year veteran at the center of the current brutality probe, said he delivered the blows to get the suspect to submit to officers who were trying to handcuff him.

The object that one officer mistook for a gun turned out to be wire cutters, which were found in the suspect's right front pants pocket, the sources said.

Hatfield's account was corroborated by at least two other officers at the scene, sources said. Additionally, there were radio transmissions during the pursuit, in which officers said that they witnessed the suspect make "furtive movements" and believed he might have been arming himself, sources said.

Officers said they were also concerned that the suspect, 36-year-old Stanley Miller, was concealing something, possibly a weapon, in his left hand. What Miller was clenching, they later learned, was money: a $5 bill and three ones.

Attorney Mark Werksman, who represents Miller, said his client had no idea why the officer began hitting him with the flashlight.

"If this officer shouted, 'Gun,' my client certainly didn't hear it," he said.

Werksman said that he did not know whether Miller had wire cutters in his pocket but that it shouldn't have mattered if he did.

"It's a Keystone Kops response to scream, 'Gun,' and pound a guy 11 times with a flashlight when he's already pinned to the ground and then say, 'Oops, guess it was a pair of wire cutters,' " the lawyer said. "It's preposterous."

If the officers' account is true, it may temper the graphic images on the video, which have prompted criminal investigations by several agencies and sparked criticism by city leaders, including Mayor James K. Hahn.

"I'm demanding an explanation," Hahn said at a City Hall news conference Friday. "It better be a good one. It looks to me that force was unwarranted."

LAPD officials would not comment on their investigation. Andre Birotte, the Police Commission's inspector general, also declined to comment on the details of the case but vowed to go over the department's investigation "with a fine-tooth comb."

"I will go wherever the evidence takes me," said Birotte, a former federal prosecutor and public defender.

Jeffrey C. Eglash, inspector general from 1999 through 2002, said the new information, even if corroborated, might not justify Hatfield's actions.

"At a minimum, it helps explain what was in the officer's mind," said Eglash, also a former federal prosecutor. "But that's only part of the equation. The other part is: Was that belief objectively reasonable?"

Eglash said he had his doubts about that, based on what he saw on the tape.

"It's early, and we'll have to see what the evidence supports," he said. "But the tape doesn't seem to indicate resistance. It seems to indicate compliance."

Connie Rice -- a civil rights attorney investigating, at the city's behest, the LAPD's handling of the Rampart corruption scandal -- said she had been open to the possibility from the start that an unseen threat might explain the officers' rough treatment of the suspect.

"Maybe this is it," she said.

But Rice said she would want to know more about how the investigation into the incident was conducted in its earliest stages.

"Were these officers separated immediately? Or did they get into a huddle and get their stories straight -- what I like to call a bluewash," she said.

According to the official police account, Hatfield and partner Michael O'Connor spotted a white Toyota Camry running a stop sign about 5:15 a.m. Wednesday at Figueroa Street and Laconia Boulevard, close to the Harbor Freeway in South Los Angeles. A check of the license plate indicated that the car was stolen. When they tried to pull Miller over, he led them on a 28-minute chase that ended in a foot pursuit.

After Miller stops running, he can be seen on the videotape surrendering at gunpoint to Officer Phillip Watson with hands up in the air. Watson is seen re-holstering his weapon and tackling Miller. Another officer, identified as David Hale, then grabs Miller and tries to handcuff him. Almost simultaneously, Hatfield joins the fray, first kicking Miller and then striking him 11 times with the flashlight.

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