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After Ezell Ford ruling, LAPD chief's video upsets Police Commission

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck's video to officers about Ezell Ford decision raises eyebrows among commissioners

Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck stared into a camera Tuesday shortly after the Police Commission condemned an officer's fatal shooting of a mentally ill black man to offer words of encouragement to his rank-and-file cops.

“You have my support,” he said in the video message. “You have the support of the mayor. You have the support of the vast majority of the people of Los Angeles.”

Not mentioned on Beck's list of supporters was the civilian commission, which had just rejected the chief's conclusion that the shooting of 25-year-old Ezell Ford Jr. was justified. The commission found that one of the officer's tactics were so flawed that they placed the shooting out of LAPD policy, even though the officer was in a struggle with Ford over control of his gun. Police union officials and many officers were outraged by the decision, fearing it would set a new standard for how shootings are evaluated.

Beck's video raised concerns among the commissioners. When President Steve Soboroff saw the recording, he sent an email to Beck asking if the “glaring omission” of the civilian panel was purposeful.

In an interview with The Times, Soboroff bristled at any suggestion that the commission didn't support officers. “To intimate that I don't care or don't have the best interests of officers — it's hurtful but it's so untrue,” Soboroff said. “It's so outrageous and so against anything that I feel or that I've ever displayed.”

Beck told Soboroff that it was not his intention to suggest that commissioners didn't back the officers.

“It was not intended to infer lack of support by the Police Commission,” Beck later told The Times. “I have viewed it [the video] several times and I don't believe it is reasonable to come to that conclusion based on the content.”

The flap over the chief's remarks underscores the delicate tightrope Beck must walk to calm concerns among his officers but also show respect for the decision made by his civilian bosses.

It was another awkward clash between Beck and the commissioners, who have had high-profile disagreements over other use-of-force incidents, the way officers are disciplined and Beck's willingness to work with the panel. When the board reappointed Beck last year, they insisted the chief communicate better about issues within the department as they arise.

Craig Lally, president of the union that represents most the Los Angeles Police Department's 10,000 officers, said that if Beck's omission wasn't intentional, it should have been. If the chief had said in the video that the Police Commission supported the officers, they wouldn't have believed him, Lally said.

“Are you kidding me? After that decision was made?” Lally said. “That just throws the whole video out. The credibility would have been zero.”

Lally said it was difficult for many officers to believe that they have the backing of the commission. The concern among officers, he said, is whether they will now be unfairly penalized for using deadly force to protect their own lives.

“You can't say that you support the cops and make a decision like that,” he said.

While LAPD officers were dismayed by the commission's ruling, Ford's family, many activists and the ACLU applauded the decision.

On Thursday, Commissioner Kathleen Kim acknowledged the difficult task the board has in adjudicating such cases. But, she said, the Ford decision “in no way erodes or undermines our support of the LAPD and the rank and file. We respect and have great reverence for the challenges that they face every day on the job.”

The Aug. 11 death of Ford, who was African American, became a local touchstone in the heated national conversation about police officers and their use of force, particularly against 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.

A 10-month review of Ford's death came to a dramatic conclusion Tuesday when the commission ruled that one of the officers who fatally shot Ford in South L.A. acted out of policy — not only by shooting Ford, but in his actions leading up to the deadly encounter.

Officer Sharlton Wampler told investigators he shot Ford during a fight for his life, as Ford wrestled the officer on the ground for his gun. Investigators found evidence backing the officer's claims: Ford's DNA on the gun, and scratches on the holster and hands of the officer and Ford.

But the commissioners concluded that Wampler did not have an adequate reason for stopping Ford in the first place. His handling of the encounter, they decided, was so flawed that it led to the fatal confrontation.

The commission's decision to look at what it described as the “totality of the circumstances, and not just the moment in which force was used” marked a significant milestone in the way it evaluates police shootings. In the past, commissioners have looked only at whether an officer faced a threat at the moment he or she used deadly force.

Wampler, who is Asian American, was working with a partner that night, Antonio Villegas, who is Latino. The commission disapproved of Villegas' initial decision to draw his weapon early in the confrontation, but said he ultimately was justified in shooting Ford to protect Wampler.

It is now up to Beck to decide whether to discipline the officers. In the past, commissioners have expressed concern that the chief is too lenient on some officers who were found to have violated department policies when using force.

Follow @katemather for more coverage of the Ezell Ford decision.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


5:50 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details.

This article was first published at 1:53 p.m.