Los Angeles Police Officer Sharlton Wampler said he was in a life-and-death struggle with Ezell Ford, wrestling over the officer's gun on a summer evening last year. Fearing Ford would get control of the weapon, Wampler pulled out a backup gun from beneath his uniform and fired a fatal shot into his back.
The account prompted Chief Charlie Beck to conclude Wampler was justified in opening fire.
But on Tuesday, the L.A. Police Commission rejected Beck's finding, ruling that Wampler's use of deadly force violated LAPD policy.
Although Wampler may have been in a fight for his life, the commission decided he did not have a reason to stop and detain Ford in the first place. His handling of the encounter, the commission concluded, was so flawed that it led to the fatal confrontation.
The decision marked a significant departure for the commission, which for decades has looked only at whether an officer faced a threat at the moment deadly forced was used.
The commission instead relied for the first time on a small but significant change it made last year to its policy on shootings, which made it clear the panel should take a broader view of incidents. On Tuesday, the commission said it based its ruling on "the totality of the circumstances, and not just the moment in which the force was used."
The finding on Wampler, a 13-year veteran of the LAPD, was part of a mixed ruling handed down by the commission in the controversial killing of Ford, which has fanned public anger and debate over the use of deadly force by police.
The death of Ford, who was African American, became a local touchstone in a year when a string of controversial killings of black men by police around the country spurred a national debate about race and policing. 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 set off the outcry.
Wampler, who is Asian American, was working with a partner that night, Antonio Villegas, who is Latino. The commission found that Villegas was far less culpable. The panel disapproved only of Villegas' initial decision to draw his weapon early on in the confrontation, but said he ultimately was right to fire at Ford in an effort to protect Wampler.
The five-member commission deliberated behind closed doors for several hours before emerging to announce its decision. In an emotional, rowdy public meeting beforehand that ran for nearly three hours, commissioners listened as dozens of people called on them to hold the officers accountable for Ford's death.
Once the decision was announced, the crowd in the commission's meeting room responded by shouting, "murder!" As commissioners filed out of the room, some in the crowd pushed forward, demanding to know what the decision meant for the officers and what punishment they might face.
It now falls to Beck, who alone is authorized to discipline officers, to decide what punishment, if any, to impose.
In past shooting cases in which the commission went against Beck's recommendation, the chief has angered the board by refusing to hand down discipline or giving only written admonishments. The chief can choose from options that include ordering the officers to be retrained, suspending them or moving to fire the officers.
Under a state law that gives police officers sweeping privacy rights, Beck's decision on how to deal with the officers will not be made public.
At a news conference Tuesday night, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he had confidence Beck "will enact appropriate discipline based on what the commission has rendered." He declined to offer an opinion on what punishment the officers should face, saying the decision rested with the chief.
Beck released a statement saying, "I respect the process and the decision made in this matter."
Ford's mother, Tritobia Ford, said that her initial reaction to the commission's ruling was, "Hallelujah!"
The board's decision, she said, "strongly, on the record, stated that what happened to Ezell was wrong."
Ford praised the commissioners, but had harsher words for Beck, saying she expects the chief to give Wampler at most a "slap on the wrist."
Attorney Gary Fullerton, whose firm represents the two officers, said he was pleased that one officer was cleared but disappointed in the ruling against the other.
Fullerton defended the officers, saying that the evidence in the case showed they acted reasonably.
"What we're concerned about is the commission succumbed to the pressure of the mob," he said. "It's a shame that police officers can't do their job and protect their lives."
In a report released Tuesday, Beck detailed the officers' accounts of their fast-moving encounter with Ford, which they said escalated suddenly and lasted only seconds.
Wampler told internal investigators that Ford turned on him as he tried to handcuff him, tackling the officer and pinning him to the ground.
"He's going for my gun. He's going for my gun," Wampler shouted to Villegas, who was trying to subdue Ford, according to Beck's report.
Contending he was unable to see whether Ford was trying to get Wampler's gun, Villegas said he believed his partner was in danger and fired a shot at close range. Ford appeared unfazed and Wampler said he felt the gun coming out of his holster. He called out again to Villegas, who fired a second time.
At the same time, Wampler said he reached beneath his uniform shirt and ballistic vest to pull out a 5-shot revolver he carried as a backup. Ford went "limp" when Wampler reached around and fired a single shot into the man's back, the officer said.
To Beck, Ford's alleged actions "established a reasonable belief" in the officers' minds that they were faced with a deadly threat and justified their decision to fire, the chief wrote in his report.
However, the commission's inspector general, Alex Bustamante, took a different view. In a separate report to the panel, Bustamante agreed that when viewed by itself the shooting was justified. He urged the commission, however, to judge the officers based on the entire encounter.
He also offered a significantly different account from Beck of Wampler's decision to approach Ford.
For the first time since the Aug. 11 shooting, Beck offered in his report an explanation for why Wampler and Villegas chose to confront Ford as he walked near his home.
The officers told investigators that when Ford would not stop to talk to them, they grew suspicious that he was in possession of drugs and was trying to discard them to avoid arrest. Beck wrote that the officers' suspicions were based on having seen Ford walking away from a group of gang members.
But in his report to the panel, Bustamante said the officers told investigators they never saw Ford interact with the group and that he was 20 or 30 feet away from them when the officers first saw him. No drugs were found on or near Ford, the report said.
The commission, in the end, concluded that Wampler's "decision to approach and physically contact the subject was an unjustified" departure from LAPD rules.
Times staff writers Peter Jamison, Marisa Gerber and Angel Jennings contributed to this report.