The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday found that one officer acted within policy but another violated it in the fatal close-range shooting of a 25-year-old black man last year.
The commission's vote Tuesday came after a 10-month investigation and was unanimous involving both officers. The panel found that Officer Sharlton Wampler was unjustified in the August shooting of Ezell Ford but Officer Antonio Villegas was justified.
Ford, a young, mentally ill, unarmed black man was shot and killed by police on Aug. 11, 2014 — two days after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The commission found Wampler violated policy from his initial approach through the killing of Ford. Villegas was found in violation in only one area -- an earlier drawing of a gun before the final use of deadly force.
Their analysis, released late Tuesday, demonstrated the first application on an updated use-of-force policy, tweaked last year to better mirror language in a California Supreme Court decision.
It requires reviewers to examine whether problematic decisions or actions by officers ultimately caused the confrontations that ended in the use of deadly force.
The commission looked at the “totality” of circumstances, not just the moment deadly force was used, and it found that “deficient tactics used by (Wampler) and the legally inappropriate detention of (Ford) led to the subsequent altercation, rendered the use of deadly force unreasonable and out of policy.”
The commission's decision goes against the findings of Police Chief Charlie Beck and the Police Department's independent watchdog. Both recommended the officers' use of deadly force be found within department policy.
When the decision was announced, people crowded into the commission hearing room responded by shouting “murder!”, the Los Angeles Times reported. People stood on chairs and chanted, “Shame on you, shame on you,” to police officers in the room. One man was arrested on suspicion of disturbing the peace, said a police department spokesman.
Beck issued a statement late Tuesday saying, “I respect the process and the decision made.”
At a new conference after the meeting, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said “Ezell's life mattered. Black lives matter. All lives matter.”
He said Tuesday's decision shows that “we have a system that can work. Every life matters, but due process matters as well.“
In a statement Craig Lally, President of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said “We believe the commission’s decision was irresponsible and reckless and was solely made to avoid civil unrest.”
The commission’s decision comes during months of debates and protests over the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers. In Missouri last year, a grand jury decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson after witnesses gave varied accounts of an incident in which he fatally shot unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson. In New York City, a grand jury declined to indict a white officer in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was placed in a chokehold. In North Charleston, South Carolina, activists are demanding changes to the police department after a police officer shot and killed Walter L. Scott, an unarmed black man.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office is conducting its own investigation into the matter and could decide to press charges in the case.
Ford's family has filed two lawsuits over the incident.
In Los Angeles, questions linger over the circumstances of Ford’s death. The unarmed black man was shot three times by two police officers during a scuffle. An autopsy showed that one bullet hit Ford in the back.
Wampler and Villegas had been assigned to non-field administrative duties before the decision. It was unclear whether that will now change.
Ford's mother, Tritobia Ford, pleaded to the commissioners amid hours of public comment to find the officers' actions improper.
She said her son was mentally ill and questioned how bad tactics prior to the shooting made it justified.
“Because he walked away ... they killed him,” Ford said. “They got mad, they got angry. Ezell did not understand. Ezell had the thought process of an 8- or a 10-year-old. He was a baby, he was my baby.”
The commission's finding means the case now goes to the Police Department's internal affairs group. Its findings, which will likely take months, will then be forwarded to Beck, who determines what discipline the officers would face. Any decision on criminal charges would come from the district attorney.
Attorney Steven Lerman, who represents Ford's family, said after the decision that he believed both officers acted outside policy. For Wampler, the officer who initiated the contact, the decision was a “no-brainer,” he said.
Lerman said he believes both officers were complicit and the other officer could have stopped his partner any time.
Beck and the watchdog found that evidence supported the officers' contention that Ford was shot after trying to grab an officer's gun. That evidence included Ford's DNA on the gun. A previously released autopsy report appeared to support the officers' account.
According to the LAPD, Ford was acting suspiciously when he caught officers' attention in August, but the department hasn't specified exactly why Ford was stopped. Ford was accused of knocking Wampler to the ground and grappling for his holstered weapon when Villegas fired two shots.
Wampler pulled out a backup gun and shot Ford in the back.
Al Jazeera with wire services