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Baca orders faster probes of deputy-involved shootings

Past investigations of shootings of unarmed people have dragged on for more than a year. Activists are upset about an Athens shooting this week.

September 18, 2009|Richard Winton

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has ordered a quicker turnaround on department investigations into deputies who shoot unarmed suspects, a sheriff's spokesman said Thursday.

Investigations that typically dragged on for more than a year should be completed within 90 days to "provide better accountability to the communities served," said Steve Whitmore, a department spokesman.

Baca's move to speed up such probes coincides with his efforts to address concerns among community activists upset over a shooting Monday in Athens in which a deputy shot and killed an unarmed man. On Wednesday, Baca announced that he was convening a panel of his top shooting experts to examine deputy-involved shootings and the tactics his officers use in such confrontations.

So far this year, Los Angeles County deputies have shot and killed 10 people, double the number during the same period last year.

In Monday's shooting, sheriff's officials said, deputies were searching for two robbery suspects when they spotted Darrick Collins, 36, and another man shortly after 10 p.m. in the 1200 block of Poindexter Street. As they tried to detain Collins, he ran up an alley next to a home and went into a gated yard, officials said. A deputy tried to follow.

Believing Collins was going for a weapon in his waistband, the deputy fired three shots, officials said. Collins was hit twice in the side and once in the back of his neck. The deputy fired at least two of the rounds through a 6-foot wooden gate, according to investigators. Detectives found a cellphone but no weapon on Collins. They also determined that he was not the robbery suspect they were looking for.

Collins, the father of two, had been arrested two weeks before on suspicion of drug possession, investigators said. On Monday, he was found with 24 tablets made with Ecstasy and methamphetamine, officials said.

Baca has refused to identify the deputy involved in the shooting.

"This deputy is shooting blind through the gate. They always say they saw a weapon, but he couldn't see this young man," said Brian Dunn, a lawyer who represents Collins' family. "The community is going to be upset. . . . We're seeing this too much in that area."

He said investigators from his law firm have interviewed witnesses who said they saw the deputy's partner confront him after the shooting and express concerns about it.

Baca's decision to speed up shooting investigations was prompted by a suggestion from Michael Gennaco, the head of L.A. County's Office of Independent Review, which provides oversight of the department.

Gennaco said sheriff's homicide detectives often spent several months on a criminal investigation before presenting their findings to prosecutors for review. An administrative probe would start only after prosecutors complete their review.

"A typical shooting would take a year and half or more to be resolved, and that is too long for a community to get answers," Gennaco said. "If we didn't put [the Collins investigation] on a short time period, we'd be talking about this in 2011."

He said the department needed to be more responsive to the concerns of the community, especially in cases of what he called "mistakes of fact," when deputies fire their weapons under the mistaken belief that a suspect is armed.

To quicken the pace, the criminal and administrative probes in shootings of unarmed people will be conducted simultaneously, according to Gennaco.

--

richard.winton@latimes.com

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