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LAPD officer who fatally shot day laborer was accused of using improper deadly force in 2008 shooting

A federal civil rights suit is pending over the earlier incident, which the Police Commission found to be 'in policy.' But the panel found that the officer used improper tactics.

September 11, 2010|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles police officer who fatally shot a day laborer in Westlake was previously found by the department's watchdog arm to have used improper tactics in 2008 when he shot and wounded a man in the leg, authorities said Friday.

Officer Frank Hernandez shot then 18-year-old Joseph Wolf on the morning of Dec. 12, 2008, according to an LAPD statement from the time and a civil rights lawsuit filed this March by Wolf's attorneys. The suit, pending in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, accuses Hernandez of improperly using deadly force.

The Los Angeles Police Commission found the shooting to be "in policy," but said the tactics of the officer who fired the shot warranted "administrative disapproval," according to the commission's inspector general's office.

The commission does not identify officers by name in public reports, citing personnel issues. But Hernandez was named in a Los Angeles Police Department release at the time and in a later Los Angeles County district attorney's memo.

A finding of administrative disapproval "reflects that the tactics used by the involved officer substantially and unjustifiably deviated from department training," said Django Sibley, the commission's assistant inspector general.

Sibley said he could not provide additional information about the commission's findings because the public version of the report was pending approval. He said it could be made public as early as next week.

According to law enforcement records, Hernandez and a partner were pursuing a different suspect, dressed in blue, who had pointed a handgun at officers, when they encountered Wolf and a neighbor on a street corner. Wolf, who was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, had walked out of his home because he felt the vibration caused by a police helicopter, according to the records.

Hernandez yelled at the men to stop, but Wolf, believing he was going to be harassed, went back into his house, according to the records. Hernandez ran after him, and fired as Wolf stood just inside his front door, striking him in the back of his left thigh.

An LAPD account released at the time stated that Wolf pointed a gun at the officers, prompting Hernandez to shoot. Wolf was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon and exhibiting a firearm in the presence of an officer.

Law enforcement records stated that two plastic toy pistols were found in a dresser in Wolf's bedroom, but neither tested positive for his DNA.

The charges against Wolf were dropped in July 2009. A prosecutor in the case told a judge that witness statements and scientific evidence led to the charges being dismissed, according to a court transcript.

The civil lawsuit filed by Wolf against Hernandez and the Police Department called the criminal charges against Wolf "baseless" and claims they were falsely brought to "cover up the unlawful use of deadly force."

Mark Geragos, Wolf's attorney, said Friday that his client never had a weapon and that the shooting was "outrageous."

A Los Angeles city attorney's spokesman declined to comment because the suit is pending.

On Sunday, Hernandez, a 13-year department veteran, shot and killed Manuel Jamines, 37, who police said was wielding a knife and threatening people in the crowded Westlake shopping district. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has defended the officers involved as heroes.

Hernandez fired two shots when Jamines came at him with the knife raised over his head, authorities said.

Jamines' death sparked protests and violent skirmishes between demonstrators and police for three nights in the area near 6th Street and Union Avenue. Dozens of protesters were arrested.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.

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