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Bratton Critical of Firing at Cars

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles police officers have opened fire on motorists more than 100 times since 1985, killing 25 people and injuring at least 30 others, despite a policy that strongly discourages such shootings, according to a Times analysis.

The practice came under scrutiny last week after a dramatic police pursuit captured on live television ended when three officers fatally shot a robbery suspect as his car rolled slowly toward them in reverse.

Since the Santa Monica shooting, which remains under investigation, Chief William J. Bratton has said that he was already considering a ban on shooting at moving vehicles.

Police departments in Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit and other cities have adopted such restrictions in recent years, in some cases after high-profile incidents in which officers shot and killed motorists.

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“Clearly we have issues that need to be addressed,” Bratton said in an interview last week.

Experts on the use of force said that, instead of shooting at an oncoming car, officers should try to get out of the way. Wounding or killing the driver, they said, may cause the vehicle to veer down the road, increasing the threat. And, missing the target, they said, puts innocent bystanders in jeopardy.

“Except as the last resort, shootings at vehicles should be banned,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina, who has helped police agencies draft policies on the use of deadly force. “It has to be a pretty extreme situation to shoot at a car.”

Bratton and a number of his recent predecessors at the LAPD have criticized officers for shooting at people in cars when such situations could have been avoided. But they have concluded, more often than not, that officers were justified in pulling the trigger.

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LAPD officers are entitled to use deadly force to protect themselves or others from the immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury. They also are permitted to shoot at fleeing felons, but only in cases in which the person is suspected of having seriously hurt or killed someone -- or attempted to -- and there is a “substantial risk” that the suspect will do so again, if not apprehended.

According to the department policy manual, “firing at or from moving vehicles is generally prohibited. Experience shows such action is rarely effective and is extremely hazardous to innocent persons. Deadly force shall only be exercised when all reasonable alternatives have been exhausted or appear impracticable.”

Over the years, vehicle shootings have damaged or ruined officers’ careers and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in civil settlements and jury verdicts. The practice of shooting at vehicles has brought more sanctions in civil courts than in the LAPD’s internal disciplinary structure.

Yet the practice has continued at a fairly steady rate since 1985, with LAPD officers firing at motorists an average of half a dozen times a year since then, the police data show.

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In 90% of the more than 100 cases reviewed by The Times, officers were reprimanded or ordered to undergo retraining because they had erred in actions leading up to the shootings. But in about 60% of the cases, police officials concluded that officers had been justified in opening fire.

The Times review is based on police records from 1985 through 2002, obtained through the state Public Records Act. It covers more than 1,300 cases in which LAPD officers fired at suspects. The review also includes several cases from 2003 and 2004 that remain under investigation by the department.

The cases analyzed fell into two categories: those in which a vehicle was the only weapon suspects allegedly were using against police at the time officers opened fire; and those in which suspects were attempting to drive away from police. Cases in which a suspect was shot at while pointing a gun at officers from a moving vehicle were not included. The records did not indicate that any bystanders had been shot in the car shootings. The Times database does not indicate whether vehicles had veered out of control during those incidents and injured other motorists.

In about 40 cases, police officials concluded that the officers’ decision to use deadly force had been so faulty that the shootings had been “out of policy” and should not have occurred.

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In some of those cases, records show, officers unreasonably believed unarmed suspects were trying to run them down. In others, officers shot at fleeing suspects in situations that were unwarranted under LAPD policy.

Jeffrey Eglash, the Police Commission’s former inspector general who has expressed concerns over car shootings in the past, said officers are told as recruits at the academy that moving vehicles can pose deadly threats. But some officers, he said, misconstrue that warning.

“It’s like, oncoming car equals deadly threat equals shoot,” Eglash said, explaining that officers sometimes fail to consider alternatives, such as simply getting out of the way. “If a car is being driven slowly in the general vicinity of an officer, and the officer is not in danger or can easily get out of the way, it would seem that the use of deadly force was not a last resort, as department policy requires.”

Shooting at moving vehicles is not a problem confined to the LAPD. At the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, officials report that a significant portion of deputies’ shootings occur when a vehicle is perceived to be a deadly threat. Like the LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department does not specifically keep track of shootings at vehicles.

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Michael Gennaco, who heads the sheriff’s Office of Independent Review, said he believed there had been far too many such shootings by the Sheriff’s Department. He added that he and his staff were reviewing the department’s policy on deadly force with regard to shooting at moving vehicles and planned to recommend changes.

In last week’s LAPD shooting, three officers shot and killed Nicholas Hans Killinger, 23, of Malibu after a 90-minute car chase before dawn. Monday’s chase began after Killinger, armed with a knife, allegedly robbed an Agoura Hills gas station of $180 and tied up an attendant, police said.

A videotape of the shooting, which took place in front of Santa Monica High School, shows Killinger failing to complete a U-turn at an intersection and driving onto a sidewalk. As Killinger started to back up slowly, the officers -- who were standing behind the doors of their parked squad cars -- fired a barrage of bullets, striking him numerous times. The officers said they feared for their lives.

Video of the shooting has been aired repeatedly in Los Angeles and across the country.

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Attorney Stephen Yagman, who has been hired by Killinger’s family, said he believed the officers had clearly overreacted.

“That car rolling slowly backward couldn’t possibly have been perceived by any reasonable police officer as a deadly threat,” said Yagman, who has frequently sued the LAPD. “It was a cold-blooded, unjustified killing, which in my book is murder.”

Chief Bratton warned against jumping to conclusions.

“Was it in policy or out of policy? At this stage it’s too early to tell,” he said. “There’s very significant video coverage of the events that will be helpful in making those determinations. But, as we’ve seen in the past, video doesn’t always tell the story.”

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The Times review of car shootings shows that police officials have often found errors in judgment, including serious ones that precipitated the need to use deadly force. But in many cases, even when police officials concluded that the officers’ actions leading up to the shooting had violated department policy, the shooting itself had been found to be justified.

Such was the case with the June 11, 2002, police shooting of Jason Mitchell. Officers Anthony Perez and Michael Estrada pulled Mitchell over after they watched him make an unsafe turn onto 65th Place in the LAPD’s 77th Street Division.

Mitchell got out of his truck and gave his driver’s license to Officer Perez. As Mitchell waited on the sidewalk nearby, Perez did a routine check of the license and discovered that it had been suspended.

The officer then told Mitchell that he was going to impound the truck. Mitchell told the officers he was going to retrieve documentation from his nearby home to prove that the suspension had been lifted and got into the vehicle, which was still running.

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As Officer Perez climbed onto the truck’s running board and reached through the driver’s side window in an attempt to turn off the ignition, police said, Mitchell began to drive away. According to police, he veered across the roadway and began running into parked cars, “attempting to dislodge” the officer.

Perez drew his .45-caliber pistol and fired two quick rounds, striking Mitchell in the head and neck. The 33-year-old died a short time later.

Bratton faulted both officers for leaving the truck running and for allowing Mitchell to return to the vehicle; both lapses were said to have facilitated the attempt to leave the scene. In addition, the chief criticized Perez for mounting the truck’s running board and for reaching into the window to turn the vehicle off.

“This placed Officer Perez in a tactically disadvantaged and dangerous position,” the chief wrote.

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Nonetheless, Bratton recommended to the Police Commission that the shooting be found “in policy” because Perez had been in fear for his life when he pulled the trigger. The civilian Police Commission, which has the final say on whether a shooting is within department rules, agreed.

Mitchell’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, which is pending in Superior Court.

Another case in which department officials recently criticized the officers’ tactics but found a shooting “in policy” involved a young Marine and his friends who were suspected of breaking into a car.

The incident began in the city’s south end, when Newton Division Officers Tommy Thompson and Lyman Doster heard a car alarm going off and looked over to see two young men run away from the vehicle. Suspecting that the two had been attempting to break into the car, the officers gave chase, Doster in the patrol car and Thompson on foot.

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Moments later, Doster believed he saw the burglary suspects in a car, its lights off, going down an alley, police said. He radioed Thompson that the car was headed in Thompson’s direction. Within seconds the car emerged from the alley, spun out and ran into a curb on 52nd Place, police said.

Thompson drew his gun, pointed it at the car along with his flashlight and yelled “Stop! Police!” he later told investigators. As the officer walked toward the vehicle, the driver “suddenly accelerated toward him at high rate of speed,” police said. Thompson said that he had again shouted “Stop!” but that the car had just kept coming.

At that point -- for the third time in his six years with the LAPD -- Thompson started shooting. He fired five shots at the Lexus.

The driver, 19-year-old Miguel Lopez, lost control of the car and plowed into a tree. Two of his four teenage passengers were wounded by gunfire; the other two were killed in the crash.

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Police later conceded that there had been no evidence linking any of the suspects in the car with the auto burglary that the officers had been investigating.

Chief Bratton criticized both officers on several fronts, including Thompson’s decision to position himself “in the direct path of the suspect’s vehicle.”

The only available bullet evidence in the case suggested that Thompson had shot at the car after it had passed him and no longer was a threat. Experts hired by the LAPD explained that that could have been the result of the “physical lag time” between assessing a threat and reacting to it.

“A shooter who is facing an automobile coming at him, therefore, is likely to have some of his shots actually strike the car as it is passing him -- or even after it passed him,” Bratton wrote in a report to commissioners, in which he recommend that Thompson’s shooting be found “in policy.” The commission agreed.

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Lopez, the driver of the car, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly attempting to run down the officer and with two counts of manslaughter in the deaths of the passengers. He is awaiting trial.

Attorney Luis Carrillo, who represented Lopez at his preliminary hearing, said his client had never seen Officer Thompson standing in the street or heard the officer yell “Stop!” He said Lopez had merely been trying to pull his car away from the curb and out into the street -- where Thompson was standing -- when the officer opened fire without warning.

Carrillo said that Lopez, a corporal in the Marines, had little motive to flee from a police officer, much less to attempt to run one over. “This officer overacted,” Carrillo said. “He panicked.”

Officers haven’t always escaped punishment for shooting at motorists. In fact, two of the three cases in the LAPD’s recent history in which officers have been charged with crimes after on-duty shootings involved police who had fired at motorists.

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In 1992, Officer Douglas Iversen was charged with murder after fatally shooting a tow truck driver, John L. Daniels, as he drove away from a South Central Los Angeles gas station.

Iversen knew the driver’s truck had previously been impounded and wanted to question him about the status of his license. He said he had opened fire because he believed the driver represented a threat to nearby pedestrians.

Iversen was tried twice, but neither jury was able to reach a unanimous verdict. The charges against him were ultimately dropped. The city later paid $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the tow truck driver’s wife.

In the summer of 2000, Officer Ronald Orosco opened fire on a 66-year-old retiree who had been complaining about a traffic citation he had just received from the officer and his partner.

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Orosco initially argued through his attorney that he had shot Charles Beatty because, after he had leaned into the suspect’s car, Beatty had punched the gas pedal, leading the officer to believe the man was attempting to drag him into traffic and kill him. Orosco fired four times, striking Beatty once in the back.

Prosecutors, concluding that the evidence in the case did not support Orosco’s account, charged the officer with assault with a deadly weapon, arguing that he had shot Beatty, not out of fear for his life, but out of anger.

The officer ultimately pleaded no contest to a lesser charge of firing into an occupied vehicle, and was sentenced to five years in state prison. A civil court jury subsequently awarded Beatty more than $2 million.

Chief Bratton said that, although several recent car shootings captured on video had concerned him, he and his staff had been considering greater restrictions since last summer. “We are not approaching this with a knee-jerk reaction,” he said.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Shooting ar cars

Despite a Los Angeles Police Department policy that says shooting at moving vehicles is generally “prohibited” and “extremely hazardous to innocent persons,” officers have fired at motorists with regularity since 1985, killing 25 and injuring 30.

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Times staff writers Doug Smith and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.


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