CALIFORNIA

LAPD finds officers were justified in fatal shooting of mentally ill man, sources say

L.A. Police Department finds 2 officers justified in shooting of Ezell Ford last year

Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck and the Police Department's independent watchdog have determined that two officers were justified in fatally shooting Ezell Ford, a mentally ill black man whose killing last year sparked protests and debate over the use of deadly force by police, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation.

Department investigators found evidence indicating that Ford had fought for control of one officer's gun, bolstering claims the officers made after the shooting, said two sources who spoke on the condition that they not be identified because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the case.

Ford and one of the officers, Sharlton Wampler, had scratches on their hands, and the holster for Wampler's gun was scratched as well, the sources said. Tests found Ford's DNA on the weapon, according to the sources.

The shooting occurred Aug. 11, after Wampler and his partner, Antonio Villegas, members of an anti-gang unit in the department's Newton Division, saw Ford walking down a street near his South L.A. home.

Alex Bustamante, the Los Angeles Police Department's inspector general, found the shooting justified, but he faulted the officers for how they approached Ford in the moments leading up to the shooting, according to the sources.

LAPD officials have never offered an explanation for why the officers stopped the 25-year-old Ford, but the sources said that the officers told investigators they decided to detain him because they believed Ford was trying to discard narcotics as he walked. The department has never publicly said whether narcotics were found.

Bustamante concluded in his report to the Police Commission that it was unclear whether the officers' observations were sufficient justification to approach Ford and then try to detain him, the sources said.

And as the officers reached Ford, Wampler put his hands on him — a move that Bustamante found unacceptable. Department protocols instruct officers in such situations to address a suspect from a position of safety, such as behind an open car door.

Ford's death became a local rallying cry against killings by police, particularly those of black men. Ford, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, died two days after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which prompted nationwide demonstrations and a heated conversation about race and policing.

Ford was one of 18 people killed and nine others wounded in LAPD shootings last year, the department said. As of Monday, police officers had shot and killed eight people and wounded another eight so far this year, the department said.

The Police Commission, a civilian panel that oversees the LAPD and makes the final ruling on all serious uses of force by officers, is scheduled to discuss the shooting in private on Tuesday after its weekly public meeting.

As with all shootings, the commissioners will determine whether the officers' decisions to draw their weapons and then use deadly force fell within department policies. The board also will rule on whether the tactics the officers used throughout the encounter were acceptable.

Beck, according to the sources, will recommend to the commission that the officers be cleared in all three categories, while Bustamante, whose office conducted its own investigation of the shooting, will recommend the board fault the officers for their tactics.

If the commission follows Bustamante's recommendation, it would then be up to Beck to decide what discipline, if any, to impose. Often when an officer's decision to use deadly force is found to be justified but the tactics flawed, Beck opts to order the officer to undergo retraining instead of handing down a punishment.

Bustamante and Cmdr. Andrew Smith, an LAPD spokesman, declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to discuss the shooting before the commission issues a ruling . The two officers involved in the shooting are assigned to administrative duties, Smith said.

Last year, Beck offered a brief account of the shooting. The officers, he said, told department investigators that they shot Ford during a violent struggle in which Ford forced one officer to the ground and grabbed his gun. The officer reportedly yelled for help, Beck said, prompting his partner to fire at Ford. The officer on the ground used a backup weapon to reach around Ford's body and shoot him in the back.

An autopsy showed Ford was shot three times, including once so closely in the back that the muzzle of the officer's gun left an imprint.

Ford's mother was emotional when she learned of the department's and inspector general's recommendations Friday from a Times reporter.

"Wow," Tritobia Ford said softly. "Oh, wow."

She said that she shared the same concerns as the inspector general over the officers' decision to stop her son, and that she wanted the U.S. Justice Department to investigate her son's death.

"Why didn't they just allow him to keep walking? He wasn't doing anything. He wasn't committing any crime. He wasn't bothering anybody," she said, her voice breaking as it rose. "He was minding his own business."

The officers' attorney, Larry Hanna, said his clients had little choice but to make contact with Ford when they saw him turn away and appear to conceal something.

"I'm hoping the commissioners will see it was within policy," he said.

Craig Lally, president of the union that represents rank-and-file officers, declined to comment on the officers' tactics prior to the shooting, saying he did not know all of the facts.

But he defended their use of deadly force, saying the situation escalated when Ford grabbed Wampler's gun.

"The only reason you try to take a gun away from an officer is to use it against the officer or use it against somebody else," Lally said. "Had that person not escalated to try and get the gun away from the officer, this would be a non-event in everybody's life. The suspect dictated what happened in this.

"The officer has a right to defend themselves," he said. "They have no other alternative."

joel.rubin@latimes.com

kate.mather@latimes.com

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