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LAPD officers who fatally shot Ezell Ford sue city, alleging racial discrimination

The two Los Angeles police officers who fatally shot Ezell Ford filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city, alleging they are being kept on desk duty because of racial discrimination and retaliation by their superiors.

Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas contend that although they did not commit misconduct during the Aug. 11, 2014, killing of Ford near his South L.A. home, they have been denied advancement and other employment opportunities because of their race and that of Ford’s.

The death of Ford, a 25-year-old African American man who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, occurred just two days after the controversial killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and stoked local protests over the deaths of black men by law enforcement. 

Wampler is described in the lawsuit as Caucasian, though department records have listed him as Asian American; Villegas is Latino. 

The officers contend that since they submitted complaints in August 2015 with state regulators contending racial discrimination, they have faced further retaliation, according to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

“We will review the litigation and can't comment further at this time,” said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the L.A. city attorney’s office.

Wampler and Villegas were members of an anti-gang unit patrolling the LAPD’s Newton Division when they encountered Ford walking outside. Wampler stated that he was attacked by Ford, who tried to grab his firearm, according to the lawsuit. Villegas fired two shots at Ford, and Wampler used a secondary gun to shoot Ford in the back.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck concluded that Wampler and Villegas acted within department policy. Investigators found evidence backing Wampler’s assertions that he had been in a fight for his life as he and Ford wrestled for the officer’s gun. They identified Ford's DNA on the weapon, and scratches on the holster and hands of the officer and Ford.

But in June 2015, the Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the LAPD, rejected Beck’s finding and determined that Wampler violated the department’s deadly force policy. 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 panel disapproved only of Villegas' initial decision to draw his weapon early on in the confrontation, but said he ultimately was right to fire at Ford to protect Wampler.

The district attorney’s office has yet to announce whether charges will be filed against the officers.

In their lawsuit, the officers blast the Police Commission as “an inexperienced group of political appointees” and stated that neither officer was found to have committed misconduct. 

The officers object to their continuing assignment to desk duty and say they have been barred from returning to the field despite several requests, according to the complaint. Assignments, transfers, overtime, advancement in rank and other employment opportunities have been denied both officers, the suit says.

The officers contend the mistreatment stems from racial discrimination. The officers also contend that Ford’s race was a factor in their treatment.

As evidence of discrimination, the lawsuit contends that a black officer involved in a deadly shooting that was found to be out-of-policy was assigned “a highly sought after position” in the LAPD’s elite Metropolitan Division.

“Clearly, there is a different standard of discipline meted out to officers solely on account of their race and color of their skin,” the suit states. 

The officers also contend that they were victims of retaliation after they reported racial discrimination and sought “right to sue” letters from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in early August 2015.

The retaliation included the denial of a patrol bonus and continued assignment to desk duty, according to court papers.

The lawsuit seeks lost income as well as damages for physical, mental and emotional injuries. 

Both officers are represented by attorney Gregory W. Smith, a Beverly Hills-based lawyer who has won several financial judgments for police and firefighters. Smith unsuccessfully ran for city attorney in 2013.

For more news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

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