Crime & Justice

Police Commission finds 3 LAPD officers unjustified in fatal shootings

LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) headquarters sign
LAPD (Los Angeles Police Department) headquarters sign
Eric E Johnson/Flickr/Creative Commons

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In a stinging rebuke to three LAPD officers, the Los Angeles Police Commission Tuesday decided the officers violated department policy when they killed a homeless man and a mentally ill woman in two separate shootings last year.

The five-member civilian panel decided Officers Zachary Goldstein and Andrew Hacoupian had no justification when they fatally shot James Byrd on the evening of Oct. 3, 2015.

The officers were stopped at a red light in Van Nuys when the rear windshield of their patrol car suddenly shattered. Thinking they may be under fire, according to the department, both officers jumped out and opened fire on Byrd.

It turns out Byrd, 45, allegedly threw a beer bottle at their windshield.

A few days before that shooting, a video surfaced on social media showing a man flashing a gun behind an unknowing LAPD officer. The department initially believed it was a threat to all officers and issued an alert at roll calls. Later, it was determined it was a promotional video for a band. An attorney for the officers said at the time that they had just seen the video and believed they were in an ambush.

The commission decided the officers’ tactics were in policy. Likewise, it decided their decision to draw their weapons adhered to LAPD guidelines. But their decision to open fire on Byrd did not.

A police union attorney representing the officers in the Byrd shooting denounced the commission's decision. He called the circumstances surrounding the shooting a "perfect storm" because of the earlier video and LAPD supervisors who had warned officers they may face an attack.

“The officers, I think, reacted like almost everybody would under those circumstances. But unfortunately it was the wrong reaction,” said Gary Fullerton. 

He said it was unfair of the commission to find the officers violated policy.

“You’re supposed to judge officers based upon what they reasonably perceived at the time of the incident – not what you learned afterwards or anything like that. And based on the totality of the circumstances, the officers reasonably believed they were being attacked.” 

He pointed out that one commissioner, Steve Soboroff, voted to support the officers' decision.

"The other appointees are just anti-police. They are there to make the mayor look good with the public, to ease racial tensions, and it doesn’t seem like they have much consideration for what the officers are going through and what they’re faced with,” he said.

Commission President Matt Johnson told KPCC he was prohibited from commenting on personnel matters.

The commission’s full report on its decision is expected later Tuesday.

The panel also found that one of two officers who fatally shot Norma Guzman, 37, on Sept. 27, 2015, should have withheld fire, and one of the officers’ tactics violated department policy.

Guzman, a mentally ill homeless woman, allegedly came toward officers brandishing an eight-inch knife on a sidewalk south of downtown.

An LAPD statement issued shortly after the shooting said officers ordered her to drop the knife but she refused.

Earlier this year an attorney representing the family released security video showing two officers exiting their police SUV in the middle of the street and moving toward the sidewalk. Both officers fired their weapons within ten seconds of getting out of their car.

Both officers – identified as Officers Samuel Briggs and Antonio McNeely – were wearing body cameras.  But that video has not been released to the public.

The police commission viewed the video before making its decision.

It is unclear which officer was found to be out of policy. The commission's full report is due to be made public later today.

It is rare for fatal police shootings to be found out of policy in the LAPD. The department's figures show that since 2011, the use of lethal force has been found in policy 95 percent of the time, for 322 out of 340 officers.

Some police watchdogs were caught off guard by the decision.

"It's a shock. It's a surprise," said Jef Page, a Skid Row community activist who regularly attends police commission meetings. “It's always been one-sided in favor of officers."

Page said the tone of the commission meetings has changed in the past year.

“With the new commissioners there is almost a newfound energy," he said.

Two commissioners - Matt Johnson and Cynthia McClain-Hill - were appointed in the last year.

But Page wondered if the panel's decision would change cops' behavior on the streets, noting that Police Chief Charlie Beck will decide what, if any, discipline to give the officers. LAPD disciplinary measures are also not made public.

“That’s where their power stops," Page said of the commission. "They can make recommendations only.”

Guzman and Byrd were two of 38 people shot by the LAPD in 2015, according to an LAPD report. Twelve of those shootings were fatal. 

Guzman’s family has denounced her killing, saying officers were too hasty to shoot. They have questioned why officers did not use a Taser or pepper spray. They have also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the department.

*This story has been updated