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Inglewood department's silence over shootings sparks criticism

September 04, 2008|Ari B. Bloomekatz and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

Rocked by four fatal officer-involved shootings in as many months, the Inglewood Police Department has declined to answer numerous questions about the incidents -- a reticence that may have intensified the criticism the department faces.

"The people in the community are asking what is going on with the Inglewood Police Department," said Donald Nicholson, vice chairman of the city's police oversight commission and a 30-year resident. "I don't have an answer for them. There's nothing from the City Council, nothing from the mayor, nothing from police."

"There's something gravely amiss," Nicholson said, referring to the most recent case in which seven police officers on Sunday afternoon fired at least 40 times at Eddie Felix Franco, 56, a homeless man who police say possessed a fake gun. "Forty to 50 [shots] at a homeless man with his dog up against a wall? To me, as a rational individual, I just don't understand it."

On Tuesday, Inglewood Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks and other department officials did not answer questions about the case. Since then all inquiries about the shooting have gone unanswered.

Lloyd Waters, vice president of the Inglewood Police Assn., said the case was still under investigation and that sorting out what happened would take time.

"Maybe people want answers the day of the shooting or the day after," he said. "But we don't have the answers yet. We are still doing the investigation."

But University of South Carolina professor Geoffrey P. Alpert, an expert on police use of force, said an increasing number of law enforcement agencies had come to believe that the best way to improve accountability was to make "police work more transparent."

"The modern, progressive police departments and police chiefs are responding more quickly, with more details, to community and media concerns and questions," Alpert said. "Departments that do not respond well to these demands are clearly in need of civilian oversight and evaluation of policies, procedures and accountability systems."

Among the issues:

* The names of the officers involved in Sunday's shooting and the sequence of events leading to Franco's death have not been released. The names of officers involved in shootings are a matter of public record under California law, according to state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.

Officers arrived at the scene about five minutes before the shooting, according to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was continuing. At one point, officers fired a beanbag at Franco. But police have not disclosed why it was ineffective. Nor have they said how much time elapsed between the firing of the beanbag and the shooting.

* The events leading up to the July 21 shooting of Kevin Wicks.

Police said Wicks, 38, 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 a fatal shooting in May.

Wicks' family says officers went to the wrong address and failed to properly identify themselves. They have since filed a lawsuit against the city and Police Department.

Police released a partial transcript of a 911 call reporting a family disturbance. The caller at first identified Wicks' apartment as the location but then expressed confusion over whether he had the right address.

Inglewood officials have not said whether there were other 911 calls related to the disturbance. They have also not released the names of the other responding officers or the nature of the interaction between the officers and Wicks before the shooting.

* Whether a man shot on July 1 was armed.

In that incident, 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 the officer.

At the time, police said the officer believed Ortega was armed. But city officials have declined to say whether a weapon was ever recovered. They have also not disclosed the names of the two responding officers or their current status in the department.

* The events leading up to the May 11 shooting of Michael Byoune, 19. Police reports said the officers mistakenly believed that Byoune and two other men who were wounded were firing at them. The men turned out to be unarmed.

Seabrooks later called the shooting "a very tragic outcome."

Police said Officers Ragan and Roman Fernandez were responding to an earlier report of gunshots in the area and opened fire when they saw Byoune's vehicle coming toward them. Police have never identified a gunman and have not released information about what prompted the initial report.

The families of Byoune and two others injured in the shooting have since filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city.

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