Police Commission faults LAPD officers in two deadly shootings

The Los Angeles Police Commission concluded Tuesday that LAPD officers violated deadly-force rules in two controversial shootings last year, breaking ranks with Police Chief Charlie Beck.

The decisions come as commissioners are pushing the LAPD to reduce the number of shootings by officers, prompting department brass to revamp policies and training to emphasize that officers try whenever possible to resolve tense encounters without using their guns. 

Both of the cases in the commission’s Tuesday rulings raised questions about whether the officers could have avoided using deadly force. In one case, a woman armed with a knife was fatally shot by officers. In another, police killed a man who had thrown a beer bottle at their patrol vehicle.

The commission, a civilian panel that oversees the LAPD, announced that it had faulted both officers who fatally shot James Joseph Byrd in October after a bottle shattered the back window of their police cruiser in Van Nuys. The officers told investigators they believed they had come under fire.

In the shooting of Norma Guzman nearly a week earlier, the commission found fault with the tactics and use of deadly force by one of the two officers who shot her as she was walking along a street near downtown while carrying an 8-inch knife.

Beck had concluded that both officers who shot Guzman followed the department’s policy for using deadly force, according to a written report he sent to the board. The chief also said he believed the initial rounds fired by the officers who shot Byrd fell within policy, but faulted the officers for firing an additional 11 rounds.

The review of the shootings coincides with an ongoing national debate over the use of deadly force by officers. Criticism has largely focused on police shootings of African Americans, but the discussion has swelled to include broader calls for law enforcement reform.

Byrd, a 45-year-old white man, had a history of schizophrenia, according to his autopsy report. Guzman, a 37-year-old Latina, suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, attorneys for her family said.

Commissioner Steve Soboroff split with his colleagues and found that both officers who shot Guzman were justified in doing so. Soboroff also voted alone in finding that one of the officers who shot Byrd didn’t violate the LAPD’s deadly force rules, though he agreed the other did.

”It was very, very hard to make that determination — for all of them,” he said. “There’s possibility for reasonable people to disagree.”

It is now up to Beck to determine what, if any, punishment to hand down to the officers. 

Guzman’s family, along with local activists, have called for criminal charges against the officers who shot her, questioning why they didn’t use less-lethal devices, such as Tasers, before firing their guns.

“There was no reason to shoot Norma, period,” said Arnoldo Casillas, an attorney representing Guzman’s mother.

Attorneys representing Guzman’s family previously released video of the shooting, captured by a nearby security camera. The officers were also wearing body cameras, but videos from those cameras have not been made public.

Officers confronted Guzman on Sept. 27, 2015, after someone reported a woman armed with a knife outside a barber shop on South San Pedro Street, according to Beck’s report to the commission. After spotting Guzman, the officers got out of their police SUV and drew their guns, standing behind another car parked on the street.

Guzman walked closer, the blade in her hand. 

One officer yelled at Guzman to drop the knife — video from his body camera indicated he shouted the command six times, according to Beck’s report. When she was about four feet from one of the officers, both fired their guns.

Guzman yelled “Shoot me!” just before the gunfire, according to the body-camera recording cited in the report.

The time-stamped security video, which has no sound, shows the shooting happened about 10 seconds after the first officer exited the SUV. 

“I was afraid that she was going to stab me or cut me with the knife or my partner,” one of the officers told investigators, according to Beck’s report. “I had no choice.”

Beck concluded that it was reasonable for the officers to believe Guzman presented an “imminent threat” of death or serious injury and thus they were justified in firing their guns. A written summary of the rationale behind the commission’s decision had not been made public as of Tuesday night.

One of the officers was criticized for not carrying a Taser, despite orders handed down by department brass just days earlier requiring every officer in the field to carry one. 

The names of the officers were redacted from Beck’s report and it was unclear which officer was faulted. The LAPD has previously identified the officers who shot Guzman as Samuel Briggs and Antonio McNeely. 

Jamie McBride, a director for the union that represents rank-and-file officers, criticized the commission’s decision, saying the two officers had acted appropriately to protect themselves and others from Guzman. McBride accused commissioners of sending officers a message: “You can save your life or you can save your job, but you can’t do both.”

“I would have shot that suspect 10 feet away and would have had no issue,” he said. “I would have gone to bed with no issues at all.”

Police fatally shot Byrd less than a week later.

Two officers were stopped at a red light in Van Nuys when the back window of their patrol car shattered. Fearing they were under fire, they jumped out of the cruiser and shot at a nearby man, Byrd, who they believed was responsible.

One officer told investigators he thought Byrd had a gun in his hand. The other said he saw Byrd holding a “black object.” 

Police didn’t find a gun or a black object. Instead, they determined Byrd had thrown a 40-ounce beer bottle.

Beck and the commissioners were critical of the number of rounds — 18 in all — fired by the officers, which peppered nearby buildings. During the later bursts of gunfire, Beck concluded, it was not reasonable for the officers to believe that Byrd still presented an imminent threat.

Byrd was shot six times, according to his autopsy, twice in the back.

The LAPD previously identified the officers who shot Byrd as Zackary Goldstein and Andrew Hacoupian. The officers’ names were also redacted from the report released Tuesday.

The Oct. 3 shooting came during heightened tension within the LAPD after a video had circulated on social media showing what police feared was a threat against officers: a person filming an LAPD patrol car, then flashing the camera down to show a revolver. After the shooting, attorney Gary Fullerton said the officers told investigators they thought they were being ambushed because of the video.

The LAPD later determined that the video wasn't a threat against officers but a promotional clip filmed by an early 1990s rap group trying to make a comeback.

On Tuesday, Fullerton said he believed the officers were unfairly judged despite the “totality of the circumstances” — the video, hearing what they believed was gunfire and then seeing something in Byrd’s hand.

“They believed they were being attacked,” Fullerton said. “It turned out they were wrong, and that’s a tragedy. … I don’t think the officers deserved to be punished for making a reasonable decision based on the facts that they knew.”

Guzman and Byrd were among the 36 people shot by on-duty LAPD officers last year. Twenty-one of them were killed.

This year, on-duty LAPD officers have shot 17 people, according to a Times analysis. Fourteen of those people died.

kate.mather@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @katemather

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UPDATES:

8:50 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from a commissioner, lawyers, a union representative and more details about each of the shootings and Beck’s analysis.

2:50 p.m.: This story was updated with more details about the number of people shot by LAPD officers.

This story was originally published at 2:30 p.m.

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