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Tactics of Inglewood officers reviewed

September 03, 2008|Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

The investigation into Sunday's shooting of a homeless man by Inglewood police is focusing in part on the tactics of the seven officers involved, who collectively fired more than 40 times at the man, a source close to the investigation said Tuesday.

The death of Eddie Felix Franco, 56, was the fourth fatal officer-involved shooting in Inglewood in four months. City officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about what prompted the shooting, which occurred about five minutes after officers first confronted Franco. Officials have said he had a fake gun but not whether he brandished it at any point during the incident.

Investigators are looking at the possibility that the shooting was a case of "contagious fire" -- a phenomenon in which an officer opens fire after he hears other officers shooting and misinterprets the shots as being an attack against himself.

The source, who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity because the investigation is continuing, said officials are also trying to determine whether the officers were appropriately positioned to avoid firing on civilians.

The shooting occurred near the busy intersection of La Brea Avenue and Market Street, next to a barbecue restaurant filled with patrons. One of the rounds grazed the head of a motorist driving by, and bullet marks could be seen on a wall near the shooting site. Officers also shot a dog belonging either to Franco or another homeless man.

The string of shootings has led the state's Legislative Black Caucus to ask California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to investigate the Inglewood Police Department and has raised questions about the training of Inglewood officers.

"People need to have confidence in their police; they must feel that they're there to protect and serve them and they shouldn't fear them," said Assemblyman Curren Price Jr. (D-Inglewood). "Incidents like this cause people to wonder."

Most Inglewood city leaders have declined to comment on the latest shooting. But Councilman Daniel Tabor said in an interview with The Times late Tuesday that he was troubled by the situation, adding that 40 shots fired "seems a bit excessive."

"This rash of shootings has stressed my patience and understanding," he added. "In my conversations with the chief, I acknowledge that she inherited this department, but it's time we got a clearer understanding on where we're going and how fast we're going to get there."

The Los Angeles County Sheriff Department's Office of Independent Review and the district attorney's office are already investigating three previous incidents in which Inglewood officers shot civilians in recent months:

* On May 11, officers killed Michael Byoune, 19, and wounded two other men. Police reports said the officers mistakenly believed the men, who were unarmed, were firing at them. Inglewood Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks later labeled the shooting "a very tragic outcome."

* On July 1, Ruben Walton Ortega, a 23-year-old alleged gang member, was shot and killed by an Inglewood officer when police said he reached into his waistband as he ran from an officer. Police said at the time that the officer believed Ortega was armed.

* On July 21, police shot and killed Kevin Wicks, 38. Police said Wicks raised a gun at Officer Brian Ragan, who was responding to a report of a family disturbance at Wicks' apartment complex. Ragan was one of two officers involved in the Byoune shooting.

The latest incident puts new pressure on Seabrooks, who went to the scene of the Sunday shooting. But she and others in the department declined requests to answer questions about what happened.

According to officials, police responded about 2 p.m. Sunday to a report of a man with a gun. They discovered Franco, who was carrying a fake chrome-handled gun in his waistband. At one point they fired a "less than lethal" beanbag at him, police said.

According to a Police Department statement, officers opened fire when Franco reached for his waistband.

University of South Carolina professor Geoffrey P. Alpert, a leading expert in police use of force, said the investigation will probably focus on whether the officers felt an imminent threat from Franco or whether some fired after hearing the gunshots.

Police are authorized to use deadly force if they feel an imminent threat, but if several officers standing in different places open fire at a single suspect at the same time, it may be difficult for each to say he felt such a threat, Alpert noted. "The question becomes what did each individual officer see as a threat, and when did he or she see it," he said.

Roger Clark, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's lieutenant and a nationally recognized expert on police procedures, said the number of rounds fired, particularly when the suspect was not firing back, raises concerns.

"To have 40 rounds of hot lead sprayed where people are living, and where there are little children around, cannot be justified," he said.

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