Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said Thursday he must strike a difficult balance in deciding how to discipline three officers who violated department policies when they shot and killed an unarmed man after a pursuit last year.
Saying he has "great sympathy for how difficult" shooting situations are when officers must make split-second decisions to fire, often amid chaos, Beck nonetheless emphasized that he "cannot let that sympathy influence my decisions. The public trust is that important to me.”
“The trust of the public...it is the important thing in policing,” he said. "As representatives of the law we have to be seen as fair and legitimate. So, it is with that obligation that I look at every one of these shootings.”
At a news conference, Beck was peppered with questions about his findings in the December 2013 shooting death of 51-year-old Brian Beaird, who was shot 15 times after he led police on a high-speed chase.
The Times reported Wednesday that after an extensive investigation Beck had concluded the three officers were unjustified in their use of deadly force. He concluded that the officers' claims that they feared Beaird posed a deadly threat were unreasonable.
Citing state privacy laws, Beck declined to say whether he planned to suspend the officers, move for them to be fired, or simply to order them to undergo training.
Prosecutors in the county’s district attorney’s office were also closely reviewing the shooting for possible criminal charges, he said. Such reviews of police shootings are standard.
In his comments, Beck criticized the officers for failing to do as they were trained.
“We recruit from the human race. And just as we have officers who perform spectacularly well...We also have folks who come short sometimes,” Beck said. “And even though I get the opportunity to judge them from a distance, I get the opportunity to sit back and take my time, and criticize what they had to do in seconds, split seconds, that’s my job.”
Beaird’s killing drew national attention after local news stations televised the encounter live. After driving erratically through city streets with several police cars in pursuit, Beaird crashed, then jumped out of his silver Corvette.
In television footage, Beaird was seen making erratic gestures and moving quickly around the back of the car and away from the officers. One officer, who Beck found acted appropriately, shot a beanbag round, striking Beaird in the leg. In nearly the same moment, the three officers opened fire on Beaird. Beaird quickly collapsed and was later pronounced dead at a hospital. A toxicology test determined Beaird had methamphetamine and traces of other narcotics in his system, the report said.
One of the officers said he believed Beaird was firing a weapon at police, while the other two said they saw him reaching into his waistband and feared he was pulling out a gun. Beck said the video footage and other evidence did not support the officers' accounts.
Asked how he could justify keeping officers who had been found to have wrongly killed a man on the force, Beck acknowledged that “the consequences of failures of policing are dire.”
“Of course you can never absolutely repair or replace human life and that’s the real question. Those are all things I will consider when it comes to discipline,” he said.
Beck added that he had urged the city officials in April to go ahead with a decision to pay Beaird’s family $5 million to settle a lawsuit they had filed.
Such a large and quick settlement, which came months before the department had even completed its investigation into the shooting, is rare and Beck said it was meant “to try to make it as right as we could.”