A Los Angeles police officer who mistakenly shot a teenager last year after seeing a group of boys with a replica gun was justified in opening fire, even though the wounded teen hadn't been holding the toy weapon, the L.A. Police Commission decided this week.
The Feb. 10 shooting generated calls for better training of LAPD officers and renewed concerns within law enforcement over the dangers of realistic-looking toy weapons.
Jamar Nicholson, then 15, and three of his friends were rapping and dancing in the alley that morning — part of their typical routine before school, they previously told The Times. One of Jamar's friends was holding a toy gun.
Suddenly, the teenagers said, two men in dress shirts and ties ran toward them and started shooting.
The officers had been driving by when one looked over and saw someone pointing what he thought was a gun at somebody else in the alley, according to a redacted copy of a report that LAPD Chief Charlie Beck submitted to the Police Commission. Thinking a robbery or killing was about to happen, the officers jumped out of the car and ran down the alley, the report said.
One of the officers told investigators that when he gave an order to drop the gun, the person turned and pointed it toward him.
“I thought he was going to shoot at me,” the officer said, according to the report. “So at that point, that’s when I fired.”
Jamar, then a high school freshman, was shot and wounded in the upper back. What the officer thought was a real gun in fact had a small orange tip, police said, indicating it was a fake.
An attorney representing Jamar challenged the account contained in Beck's report, saying Jamar's friend never pointed the replica gun at the officer. Neither officer, the attorney said, identified himself as police.
"Had they taken a moment to learn the context -- that these were four kids getting ready to go to school -- this wrongful shooting never would have occurred," attorney John W. Harris said. "But they never did that."
Harris has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two of the teenagers and their parents, alleging the officer used excessive force. He said he was "not surprised" but disappointed in the commission’s 4-1 decision.
"Their rendition of the facts are just totally opposite of what our investigators have determined," he said. "They got it wrong."
The names of the two officers involved in the incident were redacted from the report released by the commission.
One of the officers was faulted for the tactics leading up to the shooting, according to the report. The commissioners unanimously agreed with Beck that the officer had deviated from LAPD policy by running into the alley without cover or his partner.
Police commissioners declined to discuss their decision Thursday. One commissioner, Steve Soboroff, said only that it was dangerous for children or teenagers to play with toy guns.
"As a father and grandfather," he said, "I would get them a different kind of toy."
Jamar was one of 36 people shot by on-duty LAPD officers in 2015; 21 were killed.
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