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Half of L.A. County deputies' 'waistband shootings' involve unarmed people

A report by the county monitor says that such shootings leave the Sheriff's Department vulnerable to criticism. His report also found an increase in shootings in which deputies did not see a weapon before firing.

September 23, 2011|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, led the study examining the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.
Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors,… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Almost half the people shot at by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies after reaching toward their waistbands turned out to be unarmed, according to a study released Thursday.

"Waistband shootings" are particularly controversial because the justification for the shootings can conceivably be fabricated after the fact, according to the county monitor's report, which was commissioned by the county Board of Supervisors and which analyzed six years of shooting data.

The monitor was careful to point out that the report wasn't indicating that deputies were being dishonest, simply that those shootings left the department vulnerable to criticism.

Interactive: Officer-involved killings since 2007

Merrick Bobb, who was hired as a special counsel to county supervisors after a 1992 report exposed serious problems in the department, also found an increase in shootings in which deputies didn't see an actual gun before firing. In those cases, the suspects may have had a weapon but never brandished it.

Those shootings jumped from nine in 2009 to 15 last year, according to the report. Last year also saw the highest proportion of people shot by deputies who turned out to be unarmed altogether.

The Sheriff's Department already requires its patrol deputies to do scenario-based shooting training every two years. According to the report, though, almost a third of the deputies who shot at people before seeing an actual gun failed to meet that training requirement.

According to the report, the number of officer-involved shootings generally correlates with the criminal homicide rate. But in the last two years, as the homicide rate in Los Angeles County has fallen, the number of Sheriff's Department shootings has risen.

In one case, deputies came across a narcotics suspect sitting in his car outside his house. When the 35-year-old man saw the deputies, he appeared to reach under his seat. One of the deputies thought he saw a gun, covered by a piece of cloth. The man then sat up, holding the object to his chest, prompting the deputy to shoot him. The man was killed but no drugs or weapons were found, only a pair of jeans. The county eventually paid $750,000 to the victim's family.

The analysis also found that 61% of suspects who were shot at by deputies were Latino, 29% black and 10% white. Even compared to Sheriff's Department arrest rates, Latinos and blacks are overrepresented, the study concluded.

In shootings in which deputies shot at a suspect before seeing an actual gun, all but two of the suspects were black or Latino.

The report expressed "deep concerns" specifically about the sheriff's Century Station, which is responsible for one of the rougher swaths of the department's jurisdiction, spanning Lynwood and unincorporated areas of Florence, Firestone, Walnut Park, Willowbrook and Athens Park.

Over the last 15 years, that station's deputies have fired their guns the most frequently, almost twice as often as those at any other station. More than a quarter of the sheriff's deputies who have been involved in multiple shootings work at Century, according to the report, even though the station represents only 8% of the department's sworn patrol force.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said that the department takes the report seriously and that Sheriff Lee Baca is studying its findings with his executive staff.

Whitmore said that the training issue raised in the report is "a real one" but that a massive budget cut and subsequent overtime cuts are partly to blame.

The racial breakdown of suspects in deputy shootings, he said, also has the potential for misinterpretation.

"Even Merrick Bobb says … it will be a serious error for anyone to conclude from this report that LASD deputies intentionally shot any individual because that person was black or Latino. The conclusion that this is raced-based is erroneous and shouldn't even be hinted at."

The concerns the monitor raised with the Century station, Whitmore said, can be attributed to the highly concentrated, gang-ridden neighborhoods that deputies must patrol.

"These communities include some of the most volatile in the county," Whitmore said.

Among the report's other findings:

• Deputies firing their guns off duty are more likely to be fresh out of the academy. More than half of off-duty shootings involved deputies with less than three years on the job.

• Deputies shooting at animals spiked recently, with 62 last year, more than double the number several years before.

• All deputies involved in multiple shootings in recent years were men.

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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