September 20, 2016
Los Angeles Police Commission reverses chief, faults officers in two deadly shootings
The Los Angeles Police Commission, a civilian panel that oversees the LAPD, disagreeing with the conclusions of Police Chief Charlie Beck, ruled that LAPD officers violated deadly-force rules in two controversial shootings last year. In both cases, the commission determined that the officers could have and should have avoided using deadly force. It’s important to note that they did not apply the criminal standard which justifies a shooting so long as a shooting was reasonable under a totality of the circumstances and, instead, imposed expectations that the officers don not resort to deadly force unless other options were unavailable.
Shooting of Joseph Byrd. Two officers shot and killed James Joseph Byrd, a 45-year-old white man with a history of schizophrenia, who shattered the back window of their police cruiser by throwing a beer bottle at the vehicle.
The officers were stopped at a red light when the back window of their patrol car shattered. Fearing they were under fire, they jumped out of the cruiser and shot at a nearby man, Byrd, who they believed was responsible. One officer said he thought Byrd had a gun in his hand. The other said he saw Byrd holding a “black object.”
Police didn’t find a gun or a black object but they did determine he had thrown a 40-ounce beer bottle at the cruiser. Beck and the commissioners were critical of the number of rounds — 18 in all — fired by the officers, which peppered nearby buildings. During the later bursts of gunfire, Beck concluded, it was not reasonable for the officers to believe that Byrd still presented an imminent threat. Byrd was shot six times, according to his autopsy, twice in the back.
There is a back story on the Byrd shooting which came during heightened tension after a video had circulated on social media showing what police feared was a threat against officers: a person filming an LAPD patrol car, then flashing the camera down to show a revolver. After the shooting, the officer’s attorney Gary Fullerton said they thought they were being ambushed. He said the officers were unfairly judged as the “totality of the circumstances” — the video, hearing what they believed was gunfire and then seeing something in Byrd’s hand justified a reasonable belief that they were being attacked.
“It turned out they were wrong, and that’s a tragedy. … I don’t think the officers deserved to be punished for making a reasonable decision based on the facts that they knew.”
Shooting of Norma Guzman. Guzman, a 37-year-old Latina, also was said to be suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness, was shot and killed while walking along a street near downtown while carrying an 8-inch knife. The commission found the shooting unjustified. Guzman’s family and local activists are calling for criminal charges against the officers who shot her, questioning why they didn’t use less-lethal devices, such as Tasers, before firing their guns. Guzman’s family previously released video of the shooting, captured by a nearby security camera. The officers were also wearing body cameras, but videos from those cameras have not been made public.
Officers confronted Guzman on Sept. 27, 2015, after someone reported a woman armed with a knife outside a barber shop. After spotting Guzman, the officers got out of their police SUV and drew their guns, standing behind another car parked on the street. Guzman walked closer, the blade in her hand. One officer yelled at Guzman to drop the knife — video from his body camera indicated he shouted the command six times, according to Beck’s report. When she was about four feet from one of the officers, both fired their guns. Guzman yelled “Shoot me!” just before the gunfire, according to the body-camera recording cited in the report.
The time-stamped security video, which has no sound, shows the shooting happened about 10 seconds after the first officer exited the SUV. “I was afraid that she was going to stab me or cut me with the knife or my partner,” one of the officers told investigators, according to Beck’s report. “I had no choice.”
Beck concluded that it was reasonable for the officers to believe Guzman presented an “imminent threat” of death or serious injury and thus they were justified in firing their guns. One of the officers was criticized for not carrying a Taser, despite orders handed down by department brass just days earlier requiring every officer in the field to carry one.
Union rep Jamie McBride criticized the commission’s decision and accused commissioners of sending officers a message: “You can save your life or you can save your job, but you can’t do both.”
Under LAPD rules a commission’s finding is not binding and Chief Beck retains the authority to determine what, if any, departmental punishment will follow. The Commission’s findings, however, strongly bolter the civil claims of the families which are likely to result in substantial settlements. A separate determination by the prosecutor will be made regarding criminal charges.
Guzman and Byrd were among the 36 people shot by on-duty LAPD officers last year. Twenty-one of them were killed. This year, on-duty LAPD officers have shot 17 people, according to a Times analysis. Fourteen of those people died.