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LAPD withheld key details in use-of-force case

Public was not told that suspect critically wounded by officers was handcuffed and face down when shot.

October 31, 2012|Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times
  • LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, seen in 2011, said Wednesday: "I am concerned about any time one of our officers is involved in a shooting. If a suspect is handcuffed, I am even more concerned, not only with the shooting itself but with the circumstances that led up to the shooting."
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, seen in 2011, said Wednesday: "I am concerned… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles Police Department's news release on an Oct. 12 officer-involved shooting seemed fairly routine.

Officers searching for several suspects who had fled after being stopped for questioning found one hiding under an SUV on Woodlawn Avenue in South L.A. The officers pulled the suspect out by his ankles, saw what looked like a metallic object in his hands and opened fire, critically wounding him.

But one crucial piece of information was left out of the release: The suspect's hands were cuffed behind his back at the time and he was lying on his stomach.

In response to questions by The Times, LAPD officials acknowledged this week that before the suspect was shot, he had escaped the custody of other officers who had handcuffed him earlier.

LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith said investigators are trying to understand the circumstances that led to an officer shooting a restrained and unarmed man. The inquiry will focus, in part, on radio transmissions that will show what the officers had been told about the situation before they confronted the suspect.

The case marks the second time in as many months that the LAPD has withheld important and potentially unfavorable information from the public in cases involving serious uses of force by officers.

Last month, the department released an account of an incident in which a woman died after several officers forced her into the back seat of a police car. The news release made no mention of the fact that a female officer was under investigation for berating the woman and stomping on her genitals during the encounter. Police officials confirmed those details after the Times inquired about the case.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said Wednesday that the news release on the shooting was not an attempt to distort the incident. Rather, he said, the information was withheld to preserve the integrity of the investigation and not taint potential witnesses.

"I am concerned about any time one of our officers is involved in a shooting. If a suspect is handcuffed, I am even more concerned, not only with the shooting itself but with the circumstances that led up to the shooting," he said.

"The details of the use of force will be made public when the investigation is complete," he said. "Many times our desire to give out information on an incident has to be tempered with the needs of the investigation. When there is the possibility of misconduct in any investigation, we need to be even more circumspect."

The events that led to the shooting began around 8:30 p.m., when two patrol officers reportedly saw a man spray-painting gang graffiti on a wall near 41st Place and Woodlawn Avenue, according to the LAPD account. As the suspected vandal tried to leave in a waiting vehicle, the officers intervened and ordered him and an unknown number of other men out of the car, Smith said. The officers were in the process of handcuffing the men when one of them, 23-year-old Kennedy Garcia, bolted, according to the LAPD account.

One officer gave chase on foot and the other pursued in their patrol car. As they radioed for additional police to be sent to the scene, the officers described the situation to the dispatcher as a disturbance involving a man with a gun, according to the LAPD account.

The officers told investigators afterward that they had done so because they saw Garcia holding his waistband as he ran and so believed he had a gun concealed there, the department account said. No gun was recovered, Smith said. The radio transmission recordings are expected to show what information the officers gave to dispatchers about Garcia and the other men they left behind.

Among the officers who responded to the call for backup were Jonathan Rocha and Louis Garcia, both of whom joined the LAPD less than four years ago. In the 4000 block of Woodlawn Avenue, the officers saw a man on the ground trying to conceal himself beneath an SUV, according to the LAPD's account. One of the officers pulled the man out by his ankles, the police statement said, and they "observed what they believed was a chrome/stainless steel handgun in the detainee's hand at which time an officer-involved shooting occurred." Both officers fired their weapons. The man was struck once in the lower back.

It is not known whether Rocha and Garcia mistook the metal of the handcuffs for a gun, Smith said.

As in all officer-involved shootings, investigators will spend months collecting witness statements and other evidence and will then submit their findings to an internal review board that will suggest to Beck whether the officers' decision to use deadly force fell within department policies. After the chief makes his decision, the Police Commission, which oversees the department, will vote whether to uphold or overturn it.

Rocha and Garcia did not respond to emails seeking comment.

The LAPD publishes news releases on all officer-involved shootings. Their content releases must be kept vague, Smith said, to not interfere with the investigations into the shootings.

Connie Rice, a longtime L.A. civil rights attorney and observer of the LAPD, said the department's caution in releasing information about shootings was plausible "but raised as many questions as it answered."

Do they also keep troubling information out of news releases, Rice questioned, "so an investigation can go on smoothly without the department having to deal with the community's ire?"

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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