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Officer is held in attack on teen

December 08, 2006|Richard Winton, Patrick McGreevy and Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writers

A Los Angeles police officer was arrested Thursday on suspicion of assault after he was caught on videotape applying a chokehold to a handcuffed 16-year-old boy inside the Central Division station, authorities said.

The officer's alleged actions were recorded by a hidden camera that had been installed after some chairs at the station had been vandalized.

The videotape appears to show the officer, Sean Joseph Meade, 41, locking the teenager's neck in a chokehold for several seconds, according to sources in the department who have viewed it. Moments later, Meade allegedly removed the boy's handcuffs and challenged him to a fight, said the sources, who spoke on condition that they not be named.

The teenager, who is Latino, later told authorities that the officer also slammed him into a wall during the Tuesday morning incident.

The video was the third to surface in recent weeks that shows LAPD officers involved in alleged misconduct. But Police Chief William J. Bratton said that unlike the incidents depicted in the other two videos, the teenager's beating was so egregious that he ordered the officer's immediate arrest.

"It is just mind-boggling that we have a situation where a kid is arrested and handcuffed and sitting in a room posing no threat to anyone, and this officer just comes in and beats the hell out of him," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. "It's unacceptable."

The teenager was arrested on suspicion of a curfew violation in Chinatown, and Bratton said the alleged attack on the teenager was "without any physical provocation."

"Based on what I and my command staff witnessed on the video, we felt the behavior was nothing that we as a department can tolerate or condone," Bratton said.

The teenager was treated at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and was in good condition. But he remains in police custody because detectives cannot find any family members, leading police to believe that he might be homeless.

The Los Angeles Police Department refused to release the videotape to the public, saying that the case remains under investigation. Bratton contacted the FBI, which has initiated an investigation.

LAPD officials have acknowledged that the series of videotaped incidents have hurt the department's image, especially as it attempts to recruit more officers. Last month, a video surfaced that showed an LAPD officer punching an alleged gang member in the face as he and his partner struggled to arrest the man in Hollywood. A few days later, a videotape was broadcast in which an officer used pepper spray on a handcuffed suspect in a patrol car in Venice.

But community leaders -- including some LAPD critics -- praised the chief for acting swiftly.

"You've got a tape, and it's clear. [The officer's arrest] is the appropriate response," said Carol Sobel, a civil rights attorney who recently was a member of a city task force that looked into the Rampart police abuse scandal. "I'm troubled because I'm wondering what rock the officer was lying under that he doesn't know you can't beat up someone who is handcuffed, and you can't beat up a minor."

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a longtime foe of Bratton who preceded him as LAPD chief, said the latest incident suggested a larger problem with the department's operation.

"This is a shocking set of circumstances, particularly in light of the recent revelations," Parks said, referring to the other videotaped cases. "It is apparent that there is a crisis in the LAPD."

The latest incident began about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday when the boy was seen walking on a street in Chinatown with a teenage girl. LAPD officers pulled over and questioned them, authorities said.

The officers called the girl's parents, who came to pick her up. The boy was arrested on suspicion of a curfew violation and was taken to Central Division.

Meade allegedly attacked the boy in the juvenile holding room that faces out to the detective room, where the camera was located. The sources said the grainy video shows the alleged chokehold. Then commotion occurs off camera. The video lacks audio, so it is unclear whether a verbal altercation sparked the alleged attack.

Another officer in the area heard the disturbance and reported what he had heard to his commander. That sparked an internal affairs investigation. Bratton saw the video and determined that Meade should be arrested on suspicion of assault under the color of authority, police said.

Officers were unaware that the hidden camera had been set up in the detective room. The initial video was grainy, but technicians enhanced the images.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa condemned the officer's alleged conduct. "I am deeply disturbed by the allegations," Villaraigosa said in a statement. "I believe that abuse of authority in the use of force, especially when directed at a minor, is a grave violation of the trust we place in law enforcement and an insult to the values of the brave men and women of the LAPD who put their lives on the line to keep us safe."

Meade was released Thursday afternoon after making $10,000 bail. He could not be reached for comment, and it was unclear if he had an attorney. The Police Protective League, the union that represents LAPD officers, said, "We are not in a position to evaluate the facts of this case at this time." Authorities also took Meade's badge and gun.

Meade is a 13-year veteran of the department who had recently transferred from the Newton Division, which covers south Los Angeles, to the Central Division, which patrols downtown.

On the LAPD's Internet blog Thursday, one person defended Meade. "This seems completely out of character for the Sean Meade I know," the post said. "Before he is tried in the court of public opinion, please be respectful of the fact that he ... has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty."

richard.winton@latimes.com

cara.dimassa@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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