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Police Commission overrules chief, says LAPD shooting was wrong

The commission rejects the chief's finding that officers made mistakes but were ultimately justified in killing an unarmed autistic man.

March 05, 2011|By Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times

The civilian commission that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department has taken the rare step of rejecting a recommendation from the department's chief, ruling that two police officers were wrong when they fatally shot an unarmed autistic man last year.

Police Chief Charlie Beck concluded after a lengthy internal investigation that the officers made serious tactical mistakes during the brief, late-night encounter, but ultimately were justified in using deadly force against Steven Eugene Washington, 27.

About midnight on March 20, Officers Allan Corrales and George Diego, who worked in an anti-gang unit, were driving in a marked patrol car along Vermont Avenue in the city's Koreatown neighborhood. Both officers told investigators they heard a loud noise — which one described as a "deep boom" — behind them, according to Beck's report on the incident.

The Times obtained a redacted version of the report, which conceals the officers' names. Because of the redactions it is not possible to tell what role each officer played in the shooting.

Looking behind them, the officers saw Washington walking on the sidewalk in the opposite direction. They turned the car around and drove slowly behind him. The officer in the passenger seat rolled down his window and called out to the man, the report said. The officer told investigators Washington turned toward him, gave him a "hard" look, then reached into the waistband area of his pants, according to the report.

The officer who was driving pulled up alongside Washington. From a few feet away, his partner saw a dark object tucked into Washington's waistband and, convinced it was a gun, drew his own weapon and pointed it at the man, according to the report.

Washington, according to the officers' account in the report, turned abruptly and began to walk directly toward the patrol car as the driving officer brought the car to a stop. The officer in the passenger seat told investigators Washington had a "blank stare" as if in a daze and ignored orders to raise his hands.

From the car, the officer fired a single shot, then ducked down below the window. The shot struck Washington in the head.

Washington had no weapon. The dark object the officer observed was probably Washington's black cellphone. In describing the shooting, the officer initially told investigators that he had seen the object in Washington's hand and that Washington had pointed it at them as he approached.

Los Angeles County coroner's officials, however, found the cellphone still in its holster attached to Washington's waistband.

When pressed by investigators on whether he actually saw an object in Washington's hand, the officer backed away from his statement, saying, "I — honestly, it was so quick so then I was — it was a split second. You know, I couldn't tell."

After jumping out of the car, the driving officer also fired a single shot a few seconds after his partner fired, according to the report. The officer said Washington was still standing when he fired. Investigators were not able to determine if that was possible.

The shooting drew sharp criticism from Washington's family, who said the man was autistic and fearful of strangers. Civil liberties groups questioned the shooting, suggesting that the officers may have overreacted because they had not observed Washington doing anything criminal.

Based on the investigation's findings, Beck found Corrales and Diego had violated department policies in how they approached and engaged Washington, but decided it was reasonable for them to believe the man had a gun and intended to shoot them.

In a unanimous decision, however, the civilian commission found differently. The panel said Corrales and Diego violated department policies that govern when an officer can use lethal force.

The commission almost always follows the chief's recommendations on cases in which officers use serious force. Since Beck became chief more than a year ago, the panel has overruled him only three times out of dozens of cases.

Beck, who alone can impose discipline, initiated disciplinary proceedings against Corrales and Diego following the commission's finding, according to a senior LAPD official who requested anonymity because discipline cases are confidential. Beck declined to comment.

Paul Weber, president of the union representing rank-and-file officers, said he strongly disagreed with the commission's conclusion.

"I don't know what they expect officers to do," he said. "Wait until one of them is shot before they react?"

A commission report outlining its reasoning on the case is expected to be released early next week.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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