Crime & Justice

LA police commission finds officer shooting unjustified

Matthew Johnson is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, which decided Tuesday that an officer was unjustified when he shot at a man in June of last year.
Matthew Johnson is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, which decided Tuesday that an officer was unjustified when he shot at a man in June of last year.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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In another sign the Los Angeles Police Commission may be judging officers’ decisions to use deadly force more critically, the five-member civilian panel that oversees the LAPD has found an officer was not justified when he opened fire on an unarmed man in South L.A.

The commission voted 4-1 on Tuesday that the officer should have withheld fire, disagreeing with Chief Charlie Beck’s judgement that the officer reasonably feared for his life. Commissioner Steve Soboroff was the lone dissenting vote on the five-member civilian panel appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The shooting in June of last year happened after two officers with the department’s elite Metropolitan Division stopped to talk to three men drinking beers in the 4000 block of South Wall.

One of the men, identified at the time as Michael Gomez, defied orders to stop and started to walk away, according to the officers’ account. He then "quickly just turns around, faces me and does this motion," one officer is quoted as saying in a police report.

The officer told LAPD investigators that Gomez took his hand out of his pocket and looked like he was "pointing something" at one of the officers. Earlier, one officer said he saw what he thought was a metal object in Gomez’s pocket.

Believing Gomez was pulling a gun, one of the officers fired a single shot from 26 feet away.

The bullet missed Gomez, who did not have a weapon. Officers ended up arresting him on a misdemeanor warrant and for drinking in public.

In his report to the commission, the chief faulted the officers for numerous tactical errors, including failing to take cover or immediately calling for backup. They also left their batons in their patrol car, and as they focused on Gomez they failed to assess any potential threat from the other two men on the sidewalk - more tactical errors, said Beck.

The commission agreed with those conclusions, but it disagreed with Beck on the shooting itself. It rejected his finding that the officer reasonably feared for his life. Any discipline of the officers involved is confidential under California's Peace Officer Bill of Rights and other privacy laws.

The panel increasingly has demanded officers do everything they can to de-escalate situations.

Last month, it voted to include in its evaluation of each shooting whether the officer did everything reasonably possible to avoid using deadly force. The commission did not do that in this case because the shooting occurred before it changed its policy.

In the face of growing public hostility over police shootings, the LAPD has added more de-escalation training for officers. For example, the LAPD’s "Force Option Simulator," an interactive computer program used for training, now presents officers with fewer scenarios that require them to use deadly force and more that require them to use de-escalation tactics.