Crime & Justice

LA Sheriff's watchdog is reviewing deputy shooting investigations after KPCC reports

Maya Sugarman/KPCC/Image filter by Prisma

"Stop. Stop. Put your hands up," a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy shouted at a man leaving a burglarized home in an unincorporated neighborhood of South Los Angeles.

The man, Tennell Billups, had no desire to go to jail that morning in April 2011. So he ran.

The deputy "just started shooting," Billups later recalled.

Deputy Gonzalo Inzunza fired several times, striking Billups in the leg, buttocks and back – each time from behind, according to Billups' medical records. The day of the shooting, Inzunza told investigators Billups had a gun and had pointed it at him, according to sheriff's department records.

Officials ultimately found the shooting was within the law. 

Now, following a KPCC investigation, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's inspector general has ordered a review of issues raised in that shooting investigation, as well as other issues from KPCC's reporting on deputies with multiple shootings.

[Podcast: Listen to our investigative podcast Repeat]

Erika Aguilar/KPCC/Image filter by Prisma

KPCC's investigation found Billups was one of four people fired at by Inzunza in a seven-month span, according to district attorney records. Each time, Inzunza said he feared for his life, and each time officials found Inzunza was justified to shoot.

Two of the four men shot were unarmed, according to official records. The other two men, Billups and Alejandro Trejo, told KPCC it didn't happen the way officers said it did, that they too were unarmed at the time of the shooting. Billups' public defender later made that argument on his behalf in court.

Billups leveled a serious accusation: He claimed Deputy Inzunza planted a gun. 

KPCC's investigative podcast "Repeat" sought to untangle the facts in Inzunza's shootings and how officers with multiple shootings are held accountable. We combed through hundreds of pages of district attorney, sheriff's department and court records and found:

"My assignment to my people is to review the podcast," said Max Huntsman, the inspector general and chief watchdog of the sheriff's department. 

Huntsman said his staff would look for "systemic issues" and may recommend changes.

Tennell Billups was one of four people fired at by L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy Gonzalo Inzunza in a seven-month span, according to district attorney records.
Tennell Billups was one of four people fired at by L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy Gonzalo Inzunza in a seven-month span, according to district attorney records.
Courtesy of Tennell Billups/Image filter by Prisma

Billups was in the hospital when sheriff's homicide investigators confronted him about the gun Inzunza alleged he had, according to sheriff's investigation records provided to KPCC by Billups.

"I didn't have a gun, sir," Billups told them. 

Investigators pushed again, asking why then was a gun recovered in this case. 

"I don't know how you recovered a gun...and it was fired?" Billups said.

Billups faced a potential third strike, which could put him behind bars for life in California. More than a year after being charged, he decided to take a deal – a lesser sentence contingent on him admitting guilt for two burglaries, resisting an officer and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. 

When asked if his department had thoroughly investigated Billups' claim that he was unarmed, Sheriff Jim McDonnell told KPCC he'd look into it. 

Huntsman said he wants his staff to determine whether officials are making good on the sheriff's promise. 

"Essentially," Huntsman said, "that they are following through with what they said they would do."

Max Huntsman, the inspector general and chief watchdog of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, said his staff would look for
Max Huntsman, the inspector general and chief watchdog of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, said his staff would look for "systemic issues" and may recommend changes.
Pool/Getty Images/Image filter by Prisma

KPCC's investigation raised a number of questions, including: Why did Inzunza's partner, who was standing nearby, not see a gun in Billups' hands? According to court and homicide investigators' interview transcripts, Inzunza also said he saw Billups drop the weapon and, fearing the suspect would grab it again, picked the weapon up and put it in his own pocket.

The sheriff's department, like many other law enforcement agencies across California, investigates its own officers' shootings. That gives the department control over the collection of evidence, interviews of deputies and material gathered about the suspects who were shot. 

The information gathered can determine the course of justice: It is the record used by the district attorney to weigh whether an officer should face criminal charges and can be fodder for costly civil lawsuits against the county. 

Public trust in accountability at the L.A. County's sheriff department, which describes itself as the largest sheriff's department in the world, has frayed in recent years. A federal probe into allegations of corruption and excessive force resulted in the convictions of more than 20  current or former officers, including internal investigators involved in a conspiracy to obstruct justice. 

Since taking office, L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has tightened use of force policy, banning deputies from shooting into moving vehicles unless a deadly weapon is present.
Since taking office, L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell has tightened use of force policy, banning deputies from shooting into moving vehicles unless a deadly weapon is present.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC/Image filter by Prisma

McDonnell sought the top command post in 2014 after much of the scandal had unfolded, promising to "restore the luster to the badge." His administration not only oversees internal investigations into shootings, but determines consequences for officers, be it discipline, retraining, reassignment – or none at all.

"We tear these things apart," McDonnell told KPCC earlier this year. "We hold our people accountable to a very, very high degree."

And yet, McDonnell's staff has kept much information unearthed from officer shooting investigations secret from the public, as allowed under California law, protecting the department from scrutiny and making it difficult for the public to know whether accountability is improving. 

Among the records from Inzunza's shootings the sheriff's department declined to make public are evidence reports, 9-1-1 calls and booking photos of inmates. 

Nationwide, pressure is mounting for local law enforcement to ensure accountability in police shootings, especially those of unarmed black men. The discontent reignited in California last month after two Sacramento police officers fatally shot Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man and father of two. 

Screenshot from a video provided by the Sacramento Police Department following the shooting of Stephon Clark.
Screenshot from a video provided by the Sacramento Police Department following the shooting of Stephon Clark.
Sacramento Police Department/Image filter by Prisma

This week a state lawmaker introduced a bill that would end law enforcement agencies' ability to shield police shooting investigation materials, such as video, by mandating records in those and other serious incidents be made available to the public.  

Since taking office, McDonnell has tightened use of force policy, banning deputies from shooting into moving vehicles unless a deadly weapon is present. The department also began reviewing deputies with multiple shootings to spot potential issues; senior officials can recommend reassigning the officer.

Huntsman said he'll also be making inquiries about how the department handles deputies after shootings, including Deputy Michael Coberg, who was one of the officers with multiple shootings identified in KPCC's investigation.

Coberg had worked his way up to the department's elite gang unit.  

"My partner and I developed a skill of finding the worst of the worst," Coberg said. 

So far, Coberg's been in four shootings.

Though all his shootings had been found within the law, Coberg told KPCC he was pulled from the field and assigned menial work: washing trucks, sorting equipment and cleaning weapon, tasks he felt were far beneath his skill level. Coberg was still being paid his regular salary: about $100,000 in 2015.

McDonnell said Coberg's characterization of his work was "not accurate."

"We do not have people doing maintenance duties or washing buses or those kinds of things that were taken out of the field for use of force," the sheriff said.