Panel Orders Sheriff’s Deputy Who Killed Youth Reinstated : Law enforcement: A 1991 shooting by Jose Belmares led to his firing and Kolts report reforms. He is owed up to $250,000 in back pay and interest.
The Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission has ordered the reinstatement of a sheriff’s deputy fired for the 1991 fatal shooting of a gang member that helped lead to reform in the Sheriff’s Department.
In a report dated Nov. 15, the commission ordered the reinstatement of Deputy Jose Belmares with four years back pay and interest.
The death of 15-year-old David Angel Ortiz was one of four shootings in a brief period by deputies that resulted in an inquiry by retired Superior Court Judge James G. Kolts. In 1992, Kolts urged many changes in the way the department handled the use of force, and Sheriff Sherman Block agreed to most of the reforms, which are still being implemented.
The Ortiz case itself is still unfolding and both sides may end up receiving substantial payouts of public funds.
Last year, the county agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a civil suit brought by the Ortiz family. Now, based on the vote of a divided commission, the sheriff’s decision to fire Belmares has been reversed.
Total payments, including interest on the back pay, to Belmares, 31, could be almost $250,000.
It took the commission more than two years to ratify the finding of its hearing officer, Michael Prihar, who concluded, after protracted testimony, that “the shooting in this instance was reasonable conduct based on reasonable conclusions [by the deputy] and his conduct did not constitute a violation of . . . policy.”
The decision, which can be appealed in court, is the latest in which Sheriff’s Department discipline has been nullified by the commission. In this case, the commission’s three white members voted for the reinstatement and its two minority members, a Latino and an African American, voted against it.
“Until we decide whether or not to appeal the decision, we’re not even looking at the issue of back pay,” said Capt. Jeff Springs, principal spokesman for the sheriff.
In a statement released by his lawyer Tuesday, Belmares said he felt vindicated. “I look forward to putting this behind me and going on with my life,” he said.
He also called the reinstatement order “a real morale booster” for the department’s 8,000 deputies.
The Ortiz family’s attorney, Miguel Garcia, deplored the action.
“I feel most saddened for Mr. and Mrs. Ortiz,” Garcia said. “I know it’s going to break their heart to know he’s going to be reinstated. This was a case where the Sheriff’s Department was right. They believed Belmares had used deadly force when it was not called for.
“I’m not sure what’s wrong, but I’m sure something is very wrong with this procedure. . . . For him to be reinstated is inherently unfair. I think the money is secondary.”
Garcia also said the U.S. Justice Department has never concluded its own investigation of the civil rights aspects of the Ortiz shooting.
Belmares’ attorney, Richard Shinee, charged that Sheriff Block’s original decision to fire Belmares was “an unprincipled decision made by a politician with more concern about the politics of the situation than dealing fairly with the employee, who was caught up in the tragedy. The system has rescued an employee who was a scapegoat for the political purposes of the sheriff. He was unfairly discharged and he did nothing wrong. He complied to the letter with the Sheriff’s Department’s manual on procedure.”
Block’s spokesman said the sheriff would not “dignify these assertions” with a comment.
According to testimony before the hearing officer, Block and some other high-ranking officers concluded that Belmares had fired several times on Ortiz, killing him without sufficient reason.
However, Belmares testified that he felt endangered when he and a fellow deputy stopped Ortiz and a companion in a gang-infested East Los Angeles neighborhood. Ortiz’s vehicle rammed the patrol car and, following a brief chase, Belmares said he feared that the youth, who was turning toward him, might have a gun and fired several times.
A key point in the hearing came when John E. Anderson, captain of the Lakewood station when Belmares was assigned there, testified that he originally believed the shooting was within departmental policy. In any event, Anderson said, he did not believe the deputy had been notified before the shooting of any policy change.