A state appeals court has overturned a jury’s $4 million award to two LAPD officers involved in the 2010 fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man whose mother said he suffered from autism.
The original award outraged police watchdogs who said it made no sense to reward a shooting that should not have happened. The mother of the man killed – Steven Eugene Washington, 27 – received $950,000 as part of a settlement after she filed a wrongful death claim against the city.
Officers George Diego and Allan Corrales had alleged Chief Charlie Beck discriminated against them by placing them on desk duty for more than five years because of the politically sensitive nature of the shooting. They claimed Beck sidelined them because they were Latino and the victim was African-American. The officers said the chief wouldn’t have kept them off the streets for so long if they were black or white.
But in a rare reversal of a jury’s decision, the appellate court said the officers failed to prove discrimination. It also said that jurors were not clearly told that they should mainly focus on the race of the officers, not the shooting victim, in deciding whether Beck acted properly.
"We are reluctant to overturn a jury verdict," the court said. "However ... the jury here did not have a complete picture of the governing law."
The appeals court also ruled the chief has wide latitude in deciding whether to put officers back on the streets: "In deciding whether to return the Officers to the field, the City could assess the political implications of doing so without violating employment discrimination laws."
Diego, Corrales and their attorney had no immediate comment, as they are reviewing the ruling.
The LAPD referred KPCC to the L.A. City Attorney's office. It did not return calls seeking comment.
Race and politics have long been a part of policing decisions in Los Angeles, where the LAPD periodically has come under scrutiny for excessive use of force and allegations of biased policing.
After shootings, police chiefs often consider "how do they resolve this case, how do they interact with the community," said Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson. "The department is entitled to take into account all sorts of factors."
The court also found the officers did not prove they suffered retaliation after they filed their lawsuit."Nothing about their status changed after they filed their complaint," the ruling said. "Nor did they provide any evidence that the lawsuit was a motivating factor in the decision to continue withholding their field certification."
By all accounts the shooting was tragic. The officers said they had heard a loud noise while on patrol in Koreatown around midnight. They said they called out to Washington as he walked on a nearby sidewalk, asking if he was OK.
Washington reacted by moving quickly toward their car with his arm outstretched, according to the officers. Corrales fired one shot from inside the patrol car, killing Washington.
While Beck and the inspector general found the shooting within policy – even if the officers’ tactics were not – the civilian police commission that oversees the department said the shooting was so egregious it violated the LAPD's use of force policy.
The appeals court ruling bodes ill for the Latino and Asian officers who fatally shot Ezell Ford in South L.A. They were also placed on desk duty, and filed a similar lawsuit alleging racial discrimination and retaliation. The controversial shooting of Ford, who was black and diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, happened just two days after an officer in Ferguson, Missouri fatally shot Michael Brown.