More than two weeks after the police shooting of a mentally ill man in South Los Angeles, LAPD officials on Thursday released the names of the two officers involved in the deadly incident.
The department identified the officers who shot Ezell Ford Jr. on Aug. 11 as Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas, who are assigned to the Newton Division gang enforcement detail.
The decision to release the names came after criticism from South L.A. residents and others who said soon after the shooting that the department should publicly identify the officers. LAPD officials, including Chief Charlie Beck, promised to release the names but said investigators had to first determine whether any credible threats had been made to the officers' safety.
LAPD records show Wampler has been on the force for 12 years and Villegas for eight. Both officers are assigned to home, a department spokesman said.
A lawyer representing the two officers cautioned against judging their actions until the department's investigation is complete.
"The officers feel horrible. It is a tragedy any time there is a loss of human life," attorney Larry Hanna said. "The investigation will show that the officers acted appropriately and they used the level of force that was warranted."
The California Supreme Court recently ruled that police departments must generally provide the names of officers involved in shootings unless they can demonstrate there are credible threats to the officers' safety.
"In this particular case, it was necessary to investigate evidence brought to the department's attention regarding potential threats to the safety of the officers and ensure that measures were taken to mitigate those threats," the LAPD said in the statement naming the officers on Thursday.
The release came hours after the LAPD's legal affairs division sent The Times a letter denying a written public records request for the names. The letter cited "safety concerns for the involved employees" but did not elaborate. "Their names will not be provided at this time," said the letter, which was signed by a senior management analyst on behalf of Beck.
Citing concerns over potential witness statements, police officials have placed a security hold on Ford's autopsy, asking the coroner's office not to publicly release information about Ford's wounds. Officials have also declined to provide information about why the officers approached Ford in the moments before the shooting, saying the department is still investigating what happened.
The police commission's inspector general and the district attorney's office are conducting independent investigations, as is routine in fatal shootings by LAPD officers.
The shooting has led to peaceful demonstrations and renewed complaints from some residents that LAPD officers mistreat minorities in South L.A.
Conflicting accounts have emerged about the killing of Ford, a 25-year-old African American. Police say Wampler, who is Asian American, and Villegas, who is Latino, got out of their car and tried to talk to Ford as he was walking along West 65th Street near Broadway.
According to a preliminary version of the encounter released by the LAPD, Ford "continued walking and made suspicious movements, including attempting to conceal his hands."
When the officers got closer, a department spokesman said, Ford "whirled around and basically tackled the lead officer." Ford reached for the officer's gun, prompting his partner to open fire, the spokesman said. The officer on the ground reached for his backup weapon and also fired, according to the department.
A friend of Ford's family told The Times she witnessed part of the encounter and saw no struggle between Ford and the officers.
Ford's death came two days after an 18-year-old unarmed black man was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer. The death of Michael Brown sparked days of violence in Missouri and nationwide discussions about police conduct and race relations.
Six days after the incident, Ferguson police identified the officer who shot Brown.
In the wake of the two shootings, the LAPD directed officers and detectives to travel in pairs when out in the field, a department spokesman said. The decision was made after specific threats against officers were made on social media, Lt. Andy Neiman said.
While most LAPD patrol officers already travel in pairs, detectives and some others usually travel alone. The last time the department ordered officers to double up, Neiman said, was when ex-LAPD Officer Christopher Dorner targeted police in his deadly 2013 rampage.
Court records showed Wampler was named in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2011, alleging he was one of two LAPD officers who held a man's head underwater in South Los Angeles.
The suit claimed that on Aug. 30, 2009, a man identified as Daniel Hernandez accidentally sprayed one of the officers with a hose, prompting one of the officers — the suit did not say which one — to pepper-spray Hernandez and pin him to the ground. The suit alleges that both officers dragged Hernandez to a children's swimming pool and forced his head into the water.
When the officers pulled his head from the water, the suit alleged, Hernandez told them he couldn't breathe. They responded by laughing and submerging his head again, the suit said.
The lawsuit was dismissed in December 2012.
Attorney James Segall-Gutierrez, who filed the suit on behalf of a client, said in a short email that the lawsuit was dismissed because witnesses gave conflicting statements about what occurred. Hanna, the lawyer representing Wampler and Villegas, said the lawsuit had no merit.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times