Why LAPD's Charlie Beck and civilian police panel differ on Ezell Ford shooting

Whether police should have detained Ezell Ford at all is the crux of conflicting rulings on his shooting death

Both sides agreed on the facts. A 25-year-old African American man walking down a gang-plagued, drug-infested block with his hands in his pockets was stopped by police.

To LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, Ezell Ford was a possible criminal, fair game for questioning by his officers. In the analysis of the Police Commission, Ford was doing nothing wrong and had a right to be left alone.

The disagreement between the chief and his civilian bosses about whether police should have detained Ford at all is at the heart of their conflicting conclusions about his death in August at the hands of two members of a gang unit.

Beck recommended that the officers be cleared, saying they were justified in opening fire on the man as he struggled for one of their guns. But the five-member commission rejected that finding Tuesday, arguing that because of the "legally inappropriate detention" of Ford, the shooting that followed was unreasonable.

The commissioners' ruling represented a significant break from past investigations of deadly police encounters. They considered the entire interaction between Ford and the officers, rather than focusing narrowly on the officers' fears at the moment they pulled their triggers.

The shift comes amid a national debate about police use of force, particularly on African Americans. The commission action met with cheers from civil rights advocates.

But many in the LAPD rank-and-file accused the panel of caving in to an anti-police climate following controversial shootings of black men in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere.

"They feel that the Police Commission abandoned them for a suspect who basically tried to take an officer's gun," said Craig Lally, president of the police union. "They're scared. They're worried. What is an officer supposed to do?"

In an interview with The Times on Wednesday, Beck acknowledged that the commission's ruling reflected a "new interpretation" of the policies governing use of force.

"The Police Commission and I differ on these things, just like past chiefs and past commissions have differed," Beck said.

A 43-page report released by the commission suggested a deep divide in how civilians and those in uniform assessed the legitimacy of stopping and questioning the mentally troubled Ford as he walked along a residential South Los Angeles street at dusk Aug. 11.

In interviews with investigators, the officers involved — Sharlton Wampler, who is Asian American, and Antonio Villegas, who is Latino — noted that there had been a gang shooting in that part of the LAPD's Newton Division the previous week. They said gang members hung out on the block where Ford was walking, with some gang members congregating on a couch left on the sidewalk. A nearby alley was a known drug haunt, they said. They described Ford as behaving suspiciously, looking over his shoulder at their cruiser, tugging on his waistband and concealing his hands in his pockets.

The officers said they decided to make a "consensual stop" of Ford, but that he turned and hurriedly walked away when they called on him to stop. Wampler told investigators that he believed Ford was trying to discard narcotics when he saw Ford bend forward.

After reviewing their statements and other information, Beck determined that the officers had enough evidence to constitute "reasonable suspicion" to believe Ford was committing a crime or about to commit a crime — the legal standard to detain someone.

But the commissioners found the same set of facts less persuasive. Their inspector general noted in his report that the officers never saw Ford speak with the gang members on the couch or even get within 20 feet of them.

The commissioners concluded that Wampler's "decision to approach and physically contact [Ford] was an unjustified and substantial deviation from approved department training" and that his decision to shoot was thus out of policy. The commission found Villegas' decision to shoot Ford justified.

After the shooting, police found no drugs or weapons on Ford or nearby. His family said he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The commissioners' consideration of the officers' conduct before the shooting came a year after the group formally adopted a new policy allowing them to weigh such evidence in determining whether a shooting is justified. The commission's ruling shifts the process back to Beck.

The chief will decide whether Wampler should be punished.

Beck spent much of Wednesday attempting to assuage the concerns of officers.

He addressed them in a brief video distributed throughout the department and attended roll call meetings across the city.

His message, he said in an interview with The Times, was that officers should continue policing the way they always have, regardless of the commission's ruling.

"I know that we have to work through this and have some discussions about it, what it means," he said. "Am I concerned that my workforce is concerned? Yes. Do I think that the system doesn't support them and they have to worry about this legitimately? No."

Ford's death prompted protests at LAPD headquarters and the home of Mayor Eric Garcetti. Ford's mother, Tritobia, made an impassioned plea to the commission at a hearing Tuesday before their decision. She and other loved ones later praised the ruling, saying it stated "strongly, on the record...that what happened to Ezell was wrong."

David Klinger, a professor and police use of force expert at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, called the commission's decision "ludicrous."

"What the commission is saying loud and clear is if you violate policy about a consensual stop, your life is forfeit," he said. "That's ludicrous. That's the wrong path to go down."

Klinger, who worked as an LAPD patrolman for two years in the early 1980s, said that if officers are going to be second-guessed about their ultimate use of force based on their initial contact with a suspect, "officers may as well just fold up their tents and give up."

The ACLU of Southern California applauded the ruling Wednesday.

"The commission's findings vindicate the outcry from the public and from Ford's family and send the clear message that the LAPD's killing of Ezell Ford was wrong and should never have happened," the ACLU said in a statement. The group called on Beck to impose discipline "that reflects the gravity of an improper use of force that cost a life. The chief should not undercut the commission's finding by imposing what amounts to a slap on the wrist as has happened in earlier cases."

kate.mather@latimes.com

harriet.ryan@latimes.com

scott.glover@latimes.com

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