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LAPD officer is spared time behind bars in South L.A. assault case caught on video

Warning, graphic content: A2014 video shows LAPD Officer Richard Garcia kick, punch and elbow a man lying on the ground in South Los Angeles.Garcia was charged with assault under color of authority. He pleaded no contest earlier this year.

It was a case that echoed the larger national debate about how police use force: a black man, assaulted by an officer, caught on video.

Prosecutors took the rare step of filing a criminal charge against Los Angeles Police Officer Richard Garcia, who had kicked, punched and elbowed the man as he was held down on a South L.A. street.

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For some, the beating cried out for a stiff punishment.

But on Tuesday, a judge sentenced Garcia to two years of probation, allowing him to avoid jail time as part of a deal with prosecutors that drew criticism for being too lenient.

The sentence was less severe than the recommendation by a probation officer, who had noted in a report filed last year that Garcia had no criminal record but described his actions as "violent conduct that indicates a serious danger to society." The report, made public Tuesday, recommended that Garcia spend a year in jail and serve three years of probation.

Matt Johnson, president of the civilian panel that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department, said he was “very disappointed” that Garcia would not serve time behind bars.

"Mr. Garcia's actions were an embarrassment to the LAPD and to the hardworking men and women of the department who do honor to our motto of 'To protect and to serve,' " Johnson said.

A spokesman for the district attorney's office defended the outcome, saying it was "reasonable given the state of the evidence and the law."

"Our office looked at the defendant's prior criminal history, the seriousness of the victim's injuries, the credibility of witnesses and the overall strength of our case," spokesman Greg Risling said.

Garcia, 36, struck the deal with prosecutors last year, pleading no contest to a felony charge of assault under color of authority. The charge carries a maximum sentence of three years behind bars.

The district attorney's office gave Garcia the opportunity to avoid jail and have his charge reduced to a misdemeanor if he completed community service, followed all laws, stayed away from the man he kicked and donated $500 to a charity by this week's sentencing.

In a downtown L.A. courtroom Tuesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Oscar Plascencia said prosecutors considered the victim's own criminal case — which includes charges of rape and kidnapping — when weighing how to resolve the assault charge against Garcia.

Superior Court Judge William N. Sterling accepted the deal and allowed Garcia to withdraw his plea to the felony and enter a new no-contest plea to a misdemeanor assault charge.

Dressed in a dark suit, Garcia stood quietly next to his lawyer during the 15-minute hearing, answering the judge's questions with a simple, "Yes, your honor," or "Yes, sir."

Garcia, his attorney, Robert Rico, and the prosecutor all declined to comment after the proceeding.

Garcia is on unpaid leave as he awaits a disciplinary hearing. The disciplinary hearing could result in his firing, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said Tuesday.

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The directors of the union representing rank-and-file LAPD officers said in a brief statement Tuesday that Garcia "has taken responsibility for his actions captured on the video" and had completed the terms required by the court. They declined to comment further until the disciplinary process was complete.

The plea deal disappointed activists and community leaders who have pressed Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to toughen up on police officers accused of using too much force.

Danny Bakewell Sr., executive editor of the African American-owned Los Angeles Sentinel, said he believes Lacey has shown leniency to law enforcement officers that doesn't apply to black residents or other people of color. Police should be held to an even higher standard, he said, given their responsibility to protect the public and enforce laws.

"Indict them, send them to trial, let a jury of their peers decide if they're innocent or guilty," he said. "But it appears to me that it's more important to have a win record that you can campaign on than it is to seek justice."

Attorney Caree Harper, who represents the victim in the case, said the deal proved Los Angeles needed an independent prosecutor to handle cases involving the police. Lacey "clearly doesn't have the backbone to prosecute these officers," Harper said.

"We're sending the message to the young 21-year-old cop who actually joined the force to help people … that this is the way that you can roll, and you'll get away with it every single time," Harper said.

Last year, Lacey defended the agreement, telling The Times that although she didn't handle Garcia's case personally, she felt the deal was appropriate given the evidence. She declined to detail the reasons for the plea but cautioned that the video "doesn't tell the whole story sometimes."

The video, captured by a security camera at a nearby factory, was a key piece of evidence against Garcia. Police and prosecutors repeatedly cited the recording as they denounced the officer's actions, sought discipline against him and criminally charged him.

The LAPD generally does not make such recordings public outside of court, though that policy is under review. The Times obtained the footage, which had been introduced as evidence in the criminal case against Garcia, under an order from a judge last year.

The video shows what happened after police tried to stop Clinton Alford Jr. as officers searched for a robbery suspect.

The three-minute clip shows Garcia rushing toward Alford as other officers held the man on the ground. Garcia swings his right leg and kicks Alford hard near his head. Over the next 10 seconds, the video shows Garcia knee Alford in the back and elbow and punch him in the head.

As the other officers stand up and move away, Garcia presses his knee into Alford's back for more than two minutes, stopping only when other officers come to pick up the handcuffed man and drag him toward a patrol car.

Garcia told LAPD investigators that he used force to help control Alford because the man resisted arrest. The officer's attorney has said his client never should have been prosecuted, arguing in court that Garcia used a reasonable level of force against someone who "still posed a threat" because one of his hands was under his body.

Beck and the Police Commission disagreed, saying Garcia violated LAPD policy during the encounter.

Alford, 25, was not in court for Tuesday's hearing. The district attorney's office said he is facing life in prison after a jury convicted him three weeks ago in a separate case. The charges in that case included rape, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon.

Harper, who also is representing Alford in that matter, promised to appeal the conviction.

Alford sued over the encounter with Garcia, accusing police of violating his civil rights by using excessive force. Records filed in federal court indicate a settlement was reached in March, though the amount has not been disclosed. The City Council has yet to approve the proposed amount.

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Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

8:25 p.m.: The story was updated to include comments from a district attorney's spokesman and attorney Caree Harper as well as details from a probation officer's report.

4:05 p.m.: The story was updated to include the two-year probation given to Garcia, along with a statement from the police union.

12:55 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Matt Johnson, Danny Bakewell and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. It was also updated with new details from the hearing.

This story was originally published at 10:05 a.m.

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