Three Los Angeles police officers violated department rules for using deadly force when they fatally shot an unarmed man following a high-speed chase last year, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has found.
Beck rejected the officers' claims that they opened fire because they feared that their lives were in danger.
"The preponderance of the evidence does not independently support [the officers'] perceptions that a deadly threat was present," Beck wrote in a recently released report. The Dec. 13, 2013, shooting drew national attention after local news programs televised it live.
The suspect, Brian Newt Beaird, had turned and was moving away from officers when the three opened fire, according to the video footage. Beaird was hit by 15 shots. The three bullets that mostly likely killed Beaird, a 51-year-old National Guard veteran, struck him from behind, the report said.
As the investigation was ongoing, city officials signaled in April that they did not believe there was a plausible justification for the decision to fire on Beaird when they agreed to pay $5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the man's family.
Beck now must decide what punishment, if any, to give to the officers, who have remained relieved of duty since the shooting. They face possible suspensions or firing, although Beck could elect to simply order them to receive further training.
After reviewing Beck's report, the civilian commission that oversees the department voted unanimously to accept his findings.
According to report, LAPD officers patrolling in the city's South Park neighborhood saw Beaird driving erratically in a silver Corvette shortly after 10 p.m. and gave chase. Within minutes, eight more officers and a sergeant joined the pursuit as Beaird sped into downtown.
As they drove behind Beaird, the officers leading the chase saw him leaning over to the passenger seat, the report found. They radioed to other officers that he might be grabbing a weapon.
About 10 minutes later, Beaird collided with another car and spun to a stop.
Beck cited several errors that officers made as they took up positions behind the Corvette. He chastised seven officers, who all attempted to take cover behind one car door. And he was critical of two officers who arrived belatedly, maneuvered past other cars and perilously put themselves in Beaird's direct line of sight.
But the focus of the report was on what happened after Beaird sprang out of his car and walked quickly with his arms flailing back toward the trunk.
In television footage, Beaird was seen making erratic gestures and moving quickly as he walked around the back of the Corvette. One officer, who Beck said acted appropriately, shot a beanbag round, striking Beaird in the leg. The three officers opened fire on Beaird after he turned away from them and was trying to step up onto a sidewalk. Beaird quickly collapsed and was later pronounced dead at a hospital. A toxicology test determined Beaird had methamphetamine and traces of other narcotics in his system, the report said.
Police officials redacted the names of all the officers in Beck's report. The three officers who fired their weapons were identified by the department in an earlier statement as Michael Ayala, Armando Corral, and Leonardo Ortiz. Ayala and Corral each had less than four years experience with the LAPD at the time of the shooting, while Ortiz had been on the force nearly seven years, department records show.
Although the details of their recollections differed, each officer told investigators essentially the same thing: He shot at Beaird because he thought Beaird was armed with a gun.
One officer, who fired eight rounds, said he believed Beaird was actually shooting at police. In a detailed account of Beaird's movements, the officer said Beaird had reached under his shirt and seemed to be pointing an object back at the officers from beneath his clothing. That, coupled with the sound of gunshots, led the officer to conclude Beaird was shooting, according to the report.
Beck, however, found "the evidence and actual actions of the suspect" contradicted the officer's account.
The other two officers both said they saw Beaird reach for his waistband and make "a jerking motion." Fearing that he had grabbed a gun, the officers fired, the report said.
In judging the officers, Beck said he took into account that they went into the encounter knowing Beaird was seen reaching for an unknown object during the pursuit. He also highlighted the chaos of the scene, including a geyser of water from a broken hydrant and the din of helicopters.
Although the officers had only seconds to act in the difficult conditions, Beck ultimately found their decision to shoot was unreasonable. "Each officer is accountable for their own use of force," he wrote.
Larry Hanna, an attorney representing the three officers, defended their decisions to fire on Beaird, saying that the officers did not have the benefit of hindsight and seeing things unfold from above as the public and investigators did.
"In their minds, they all perceived the threat and that's why they had to take action," Hanna said. "They went out there that night trying to do the best job they could."
Hanna said he hoped Beck would be fair when making his decision on discipline and order the officers only to be retrained.