The mistaken shooting of a Northridge man swept up in a police manhunt has reignited a long-standing controversy over the tactics of an undercover Los Angeles Police Department squad that shadows suspects, waiting to catch them committing serious crimes.
Officers from the department’s Special Investigations Section shot and killed three of the four robbery suspects they chased into a Northridge neighborhood Tuesday night after the armed holdup of about 20 patrons and employees at a nearby blues bar.
During their search for the suspect who got away, officers shot and wounded a neighbor who was crouching in a front yard close to where the robbery suspects, two men and a woman, had been cornered and fatally wounded.
The robbery and shootout--with bullets passing into nearby homes--renewed criticism that the surveillance operations were simply an excuse to confront--and often kill--those suspected of serial crimes. For years, critics say, the undercover operations have risked the lives of innocent bystanders.
Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams held a news conference Wednesday to address concerns raised by the shootout involving the unit, which came under fire after a 1988 Times investigation found that the then-19-member unit often followed violent criminals but did not take advantage of opportunities to arrest them until after they saw them commit robberies or burglaries.
Williams defended the tactics of the SIS, saying: “While we never want to see innocent individuals hurt, somebody has to stand in harm’s way and in this city, it happens to be the LAPD.”
On Tuesday night, SIS officers waited outside the ClassRoom bar and watched while three of the four suspects they had been following since late afternoon entered the bar’s front door.
Once inside, the three men waved guns, yelling to the roomful of terrified patrons, “ ‘Get the ---- down! Get your faces down and take your money out!’ ” said musician Craig Banks, who was just about to take the stage with his band.
The suspects rifled through the pockets of the men and stole purses from the women. “I thought they were going to shoot me as they ran off, to make an example of me or something,” said Banks, who had brought his mother and father to see him perform at the bar, located at Tampa and Roscoe boulevards.
When told that undercover officers had been waiting outside the bar during the holdup, Banks said Wednesday: “I know I was at risk. I know I could have been shot. But on the other hand, maybe this is what’s needed to keep these guys off the street so they won’t put someone else’s life in danger.”
The shooting ended two months of work by undercover detectives pursuing a band of robbers they dubbed the “Cocktail Bar Bandits.” The bandits--who police believe belonged to a North Hollywood street gang--had targeted as many as 20 San Fernando Valley bars since December, staging so-called take-down robberies, forcing patrons to stand against a wall or lie on the floor at gunpoint.
Joe the bartender, afraid to reveal his last name, said: “I told them, ‘You got the money. . . . Don’t hurt anybody.’ ”
As the robbers left through the back door of the bar to a waiting car, undercover officers began chasing them through residential streets, cornering them in a cul-de-sac. Three of the four people were shot to death in the car when one pointed a gun at police, said LAPD spokesman Cmdr. Tim McBride.
The dead were all in their 20s, police said. They were identified as Kirk Deffenbaugh, Kim Benton, and Eric Fields. Fields lived in Van Nuys, but police could not say where the others were from.
A fourth suspect, Michael Smith, 20, ran from the car and was tracked down by a police dog and arrested on suspicion of murder. He was treated for dog bites at a hospital.
The gunfire on the usually quiet Schoenborn Street cul-de-sac was “so close and so clear,” said bank executive Larry Belkin. “I could see the [gunshot] flashes in the window. . . . I yelled to everybody, ‘Just get down!’ ”
After the shooting stopped, Belkin peered out the window and saw several officers surrounding a man lying on the pavement near his driveway. Another suspect, apparently shot, was being pulled out of the car by police, he said.
Within 20 minutes, he said, at least 10 police cruisers were combing the cul-de-sac, with helicopters overhead shining searchlights for the man who escaped the police gunfire.
“What if I went downstairs to get my cheesecake?” said Mary Debbie Belkin, after looking over the bullet hole in her refrigerator Wednesday morning.
Susie Chuang, Belkin’s next-door neighbor, said she too heard the gunfire and peered out an upstairs window minutes later to the sight of a white sheet draped over a body.
“We’ve never had trouble before on this block, but I guess you just can’t get away from it,” said Chuang, a 12-year resident. “This kind of thing happens everywhere.”
Chief Williams said a resident, 20-year-old Grover Wilson Smith--no relation to the suspect Smith--was shot in the leg by two plainclothes detectives when he did not respond to their orders to surrender, and instead “reached for his waistband.”
Friends said Smith fled from his home when police helicopters and patrol cars converged on the area because he feared being arrested for outstanding traffic violations.
Smith was on probation for driving with a suspended license and had missed a court appearance, which could have landed him in jail for 120 days, court records show.
Smith’s friends contend that he was walking toward police with his arms raised when he was dropped by shotgun blasts. They said doctors have indicated that he may not regain full use of the limb. Smith was hospitalized in serious but stable condition.
Williams acknowledged Wednesday that Smith--who police say matched the description of the robbery suspect who jumped from the car and fled--was an unintended victim, and said the shooting is being investigated to determine if police acted properly.
In addition, he said, Assistant Chief Frank Piersol was dispatched to Northridge Hospital Medical Center on Wednesday to meet with Smith’s family “to express the concern of members of this department.”
Mayor Richard Riordan, in a statement Wednesday, called the shootings a tragedy that should be laid at the feet of the city’s street gangs. “It is tragic that, as an end result of the violence initiated by gang members, three suspects were killed and a young man not involved in the incident was badly wounded,” Riordan said.
The suspects were among a group that had been under surveillance periodically for the last month, police said. On Tuesday, they were being tracked by an LAPD helicopter, as well as a team of SIS officers.
In 1989, after the Times articles scrutinizing the SIS, guidelines covering the unit were changed to require officers to protect potential crime victims even if that jeopardized an undercover investigation. “No arrest, conviction or piece of evidence can outweigh the value of human life,” said the policy, developed under former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates.
The shootings will be reviewed by the city’s civilian Police Commission, which oversees LAPD investigations of all officer-involved shootings.
Inspector General Katherine Mader, who was appointed by the civilian commission to oversee the LAPD’s internal disciplinary system, said she and Police Commission President Raymond Fisher met Wednesday with Chief Williams to discuss the shooting.
She said she will monitor the investigation closely and report back to the Police Commission while the Police Department conducts its own internal review.
Williams said he has requested Mader closely observe the LAPD investigation to protect “the integrity of the investigation.”
Fisher said the commission will not follow its routine practice of letting the Police Department complete its investigation first because of the controversy surrounding the SIS and the litigation it has engendered.
“We do understand the sensitivity of this,” Fisher said.
Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Bettina Boxall, John Gonzales and Solomon Moore contributed to this story.
* THE SIS: Is it an elite team of well-trained cops fighting the city’s most dangerous criminals? Or is it a band of reckless cowboys with itchy trigger fingers? A look at the LAPD’s Special Investigations Section. Page A22
* THE CONTROVERSY: A quick glance at three incidents involving the elite detective unit that shadows suspects to catch them in the act. Page A22
* THE SHOOTING: A graphic details the sequence of events: From the storming of the bar to the shooting of Grover Smith, a man apparently mistaken for a gunman. Page A23
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Shooting: What Happened
Three men suspected of robbing a Valley bar were shot and killed by Los Angeles police officers late Tuesday night. A fourth suspect was arrested and a nearby resident was shot and wounded.
1) About 9:30 p.m., three armed men storm into the ClassRoom, a blues bar on Tampa Avenue.
2) Fifteen to 20 patrons are ordered to lie face down as the gunmen grab money from them and from the cash register.
3) Robbers flee through a back door where a getaway car is waiting in the alley.
4) SIS officers chase suspects down the alleyway. Chase continues west on Roscoe Boulevard, north on Corbin Avenue and east on Schoenborn Street, where the shootout takes place.
5) In the confusion, one suspect escapes.
6) Grover Smith, who lives in the neighborhood, is apparently mistaken for the fugitive and is shot on Corbin Avenue.