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Report faults probes of shootings by deputies

Sheriff's monitor cites lax investigation of use-of-force cases.

December 20, 2007|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department failed to thoroughly investigate half of its recent use-of-force cases, according to a monitor's report released Wednesday.

Special Counsel Merrick Bobb, who monitors the Sheriff's Department under a contract with the county, said he was concerned that internal affairs investigators didn't interview several deputies who fired weapons at suspects. Instead, the investigators relied on previous interviews of the deputies by homicide detectives.

Bobb, whose staff reviewed dozens of deputies' use of force from 2004 and 2005, also concluded that some of the department's internal affairs detectives appeared to side with deputies while interviewing them.

For example, while investigating the shooting of a juvenile in Compton in 2004, an investigator said, "very good," or "perfect," when a deputy answered questions in a manner that appeared to justify the shooting, according to Bobb's report.

The report found some things to commend, however. It said the Office of Independent Review, which monitors sheriff's internal affairs investigations, had provided useful oversight and improved the thoroughness of the investigations. It also noted that the department's internal affairs process has become a model for agencies across the country.

Sheriff's Division Chief Roberta Abner said the department, in response to Bobb's concerns, recently adopted a policy that requires internal affairs investigators to interview all deputies who shoot suspects, even if homicide detectives already had spoken with the deputies.

By policy, homicide detectives review deputy shootings to help determine whether the deputies were justified. Deputies now will be interviewed first by homicide detectives conducting a criminal investigation and then by internal affairs investigators to determine whether a shooting was within department policy.

In the report, Bobb said he found the review of one deputy-involved shooting particularly troubling. The deputy shot a juvenile whom he said had shot at him. None of six witnesses said they saw the juvenile with a gun, and a gunshot residue test found no evidence that the youth had fired a weapon.

Deputies said they found a handgun in a nearby bush, but there was no evidence linking the juvenile to the gun. In addition, the deputy gave conflicting accounts of the shooting, the report said. He told one investigator he did not see what happened to the gun but told another he saw the juvenile throw it toward the bush, the report said.

Based on the deputy's statements, the juvenile was convicted of assault with a firearm against a peace officer and sentenced to seven years in the California Youth Authority. Bobb requested that the department reopen the investigation, but the department declined. The deputy has left the department.

"If it turns out that the facts were different than as found in the initial investigation it would have very profound consequences for the criminal justice system as a whole and the juvenile in particular," Bobb said Wednesday.

Abner said the department has reviewed the case thoroughly and determined that reopening the case would produce no useful information.

"The issue is whether the juvenile was in possession of a weapon. What we don't feel can happen by reopening it is having any more information that goes to that fact," Abner said.

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