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Answers sought in shooting

Inglewood police and unarmed man's family grapple with questions.

May 13, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

Top Inglewood police officials struggled Monday to explain why officers fatally shot an unarmed motorist over the weekend, acknowledging that there was no evidence linking the man or others in the car to the gunfire that drew police to the scene.

"It was a totality of circumstances," Capt. Eve Irvine said in explaining why the police shot at the car Sunday, killing Michael Byoune, a 19-year-old passenger, and wounding the driver, 19-year-old Larry White.

Irvine said the officers opened fire because they heard gunshots in the area and saw the vehicle coming toward them. Police said they found expended rounds suggesting that someone was shooting in the area, but they were still trying to determine who was behind it.

Inglewood Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks expressed condolences to Byoune's family -- but said it would be premature to call the shooting a mistake.

"As the chief of police I want to assure you all that our investigations will be objective and they will be comprehensive," Seabrooks said.

One of the officers who opened fire had been with the department 5 1/2 years and his partner had been with the department less than one year. Seabrooks said both officers have been placed on paid administrative leave. Although California courts have ruled that the names of officers involved in shootings should be publicly released, the Inglewood Police Department refused requests to release their identities.

The chief said there are three investigations into the incident -- criminal and administrative probes by her department, and an independent investigation by the county district attorney's office.

Inglewood police said they are still trying to piece the incident together and have further interviews to conduct as part of their investigation. Preliminarily, they said the incident began about 1:40 a.m. Sunday when the two officers heard gunshots while patrolling the 3000 block of Manchester Boulevard. At least three independent witnesses told investigators that they saw a man pointing a gun in the direction of the officers who had pulled into a Rally's fast-food restaurant parking lot, Irvine said. Expended rounds that did not come from the officers' weapons were found in the parking lot, she said.

About the time the officers heard the gunfire, they saw a man run and get into a slow-moving car in which Byoune was riding. The officers said they heard more shots and felt something hit their cruiser, then fired several shots as the vehicle moved toward them, according to police. Police now believe that the man who entered the vehicle was not connected to the shooting.

Byoune was shot at least three times in the torso and died at the scene, said Los Angeles County coroner's investigator Jerry McKibben. White, the driver, was wounded in the leg. Another passenger was not injured.

Inglewood police officials have offered conflicting details and accounts of the shooting since Sunday. They originally said the incident might have been gang-related; hours later, they said none of the three men in the car were suspected gang members.

Police spokesmen have focused on the officers' hearing gunshots, and feeling under attack as their car was struck by something. Later they said there was no evidence that the police cruiser had been hit.

Asked whether there was any evidence of bullets striking the police cruiser, Seabrooks responded: "No, there were not. Not that we could clearly identify as coming from an external source."

But Los Angeles County coroner's Assistant Chief Ed Winter said there were "multiple bullet holes through the front of the windshield" of the police car. The report by the coroner's investigator did not say whether the gunfire came from inside the cruiser or from outside, Winter said.

"The coroner conducts an investigation into the manner of death and does not conduct an investigation into the crime scene," Inglewood Police Sgt. Gabriela Garcia said.

Although it was unclear whether the officers saw a gunman, Seabrooks defended her officers, saying they "correctly" believed "that they were under fire." And, she said, the officers believed that they were in danger because "that car was being driven at them."

But an expert on use of force said it was unusual that no one was charged with a crime if the officers felt threatened by the vehicle.

"It's quite puzzling no one was charged if indeed they believed that the car and its passengers presented an imminent threat of loss of life or serious injury," said Merrick Bobb, a county special counsel and executive director for the nonprofit Police Assessment Resource Center.

"We are under no obligation to quickly file charges, and in this case our investigation has to indicate it is appropriate to file charges," Seabrooks said.

Bobb added that a number of police agencies in Southern California, including the Los Angeles Police Department and the county Sheriff's Department, have in recent years tightened their policies on firing at moving vehicles.

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