Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's newly appointed Police Commission has overruled Police Chief William J. Bratton and concluded that a detective with the Special Investigation Section acted improperly in shooting an unarmed burglary suspect last year.
The commission, which the mayor promised would be "vigorous in their oversight" of the LAPD, declined to accept Bratton's recommendation that the detective used proper force as allowed by department policy when he wounded the man last year in Van Nuys.
"This decision was not bound by personalities," commission President John Mack said. "We went where the facts took us. It is nothing personal."
It is unusual for the commission to reject the chief's findings. In the vast majority of LAPD shootings, commissioners follow the recommendations of the chief when it comes to determining whether officers acted within the department's use-of-force policy, a Times review found. This track record has prompted LAPD critics to accuse the commission of being a rubber stamp for the chief and for not acting vigorously against police misconduct.
The new panel is expected to deal with several high-profile police misconduct cases in the months ahead, including the killing of 13-year-old Devin Brown at the end of a police chase and the shooting death of 19-month-old Suzie Pena during a hostage standoff.
Mack stressed that the decision in the SIS shooting wasn't meant to send a message about the commission's independence but rather is an example of strong civilian oversight of the department.
"There will be times when the commission, the chief and department will view things differently," he said.
The vote Wednesday reverberated across Los Angeles law enforcement circles, with some fearing that the decision is meant to set a precedent. Bob Baker, head of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, expressed concern about the implications of the decision.
"The risk of decisions like this is that they will result in the next officer facing danger to hesitate and get killed," Baker said. "An officer who is risking his life in the pursuit of a dangerous suspect and is forced to make a split-second decision should not be second-guessed with 20/20 hindsight."
Some LAPD critics said they were surprised but pleased by the commission's decision and hoped that the move marked the emergence of a stronger, more independent board.
"These commissioners are showing early they have the courage and conviction to stand up to Chief Bratton when necessary," said Najee Ali, head of Project Islamic Hope, who has led protests of several recent high-profile LAPD shootings. "This is a quite stunning decision. For them to break ranks is a strong sign of their independence and a good sign for civilian oversight."
In announcing the appointment of the new board members in July, Villaraigosa praised their "deep roots in the reform movement." Mack is the retired president of the Los Angeles Urban League who for decades spoke out against LAPD treatment of minority groups.
In addition to Mack, the commission includes two former federal prosecutors, Anthony Pacheco and Andrea Ordin, as well as bank executive and civil rights activist Shelley Freeman.
The only board member remaining from the era of Villaraigosa predecessor James K. Hahn is Alan J. Skobin, a lawyer at Galpin Motors, a San Fernando Valley auto dealership.
Bratton on Wednesday referred all calls about the decision to 1st Assistant Chief James McDonnell, who insisted that the commission's vote did not open up any kind of rift.
"This commission has shown their independence," he said. "They very carefully read the information to come to a decision with their own independent perspective on what happened."
The shooting in question occurred Sept. 9, 2004, in Van Nuys when Det. Jim Harris and other SIS officers boxed in a suspect's car on Woodman Avenue. Harris told internal affairs investigators that he fired on the suspect with his shotgun after the man refused to keep his hands in the air and reached toward his waist. Harris said he feared the suspect was reaching for a weapon.
But LAPD Inspector General Andre Birotte has raised questions about the officer's account in a report, according to officials who are familiar with the report's contents. The report concluded that the suspect, Roger Mills, did not pose an "immediate threat" to Harris and that the detective should not have fired, the sources said.
Bratton said in his report that Harris had reason to believe Mills was carrying a gun because the suspect had been linked to an earlier robbery in which guns were taken. But Birotte concluded that the earlier robbery was not enough to assume that Mills was armed.
The commission's action marks a rare case in which a shooting by the SIS, a controversial undercover unit that over the last thee decades has killed 37 suspects, has been ruled unjustified by the commission. According to a Times review of police records since 1985, the commission has found only two shootings by SIS officers to be out of policy. One involved an accidental shooting. In the other case, the commission reversed itself and found the shooting in policy after further investigation.
With the commission's action, Harris now faces disciplinary action by the department. Mills recovered from his injuries, was convicted of the burglary and sentenced to four years in prison.
Times staff writer Matt Lait contributed to this report.