Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said Saturday that he planned to review the department’s policy of allowing officers to strike suspects with flashlights, following the videotaped beating of an African American man last week.
“The image of the flashlight looks problematic,” Bratton said. “It looks awful, quite frankly.”
Bratton, who has headed police departments in Boston and New York City, said the authorized use of a flashlight on resistant suspects was new to him and needed to be reevaluated. Bratton, who took control of the LAPD in October 2002, said neither East Coast police department allowed flashlights to be used that way.
The announcement came after Bratton met privately with about 60 religious, city and community leaders in midtown Los Angeles to discuss Wednesday’s violent arrest. He showed the group still images of the arrest and said he planned to review the witness statements and the officers’ backgrounds as part of the department’s inquiry.
Two television news helicopters taped LAPD Officer John J. Hatfield hitting a suspected car thief 11 times with a flashlight at the end of a car chase. The man, Stanley Miller, stopped the car, jumped out and sprinted alongside a concrete flood channel before raising his hands in the air. One officer then tackled Miller and another officer grabbed him and tried to handcuff him. Hatfield was the third officer to reach the suspect.
Criminal and administrative investigations are underway into the use of force by the officers. All eight officers at the scene have been placed on desk duty pending the outcome.
Under department policy, Bratton said, officers are permitted to use “distraction blows” with flashlights to gain the compliance of aggressive or combative suspects. They can strike suspects in the arm and shoulder, he said, but not in the head.
“No matter what we authorize, to the public, it looks awful,” Bratton said. “If it is authorized, then our obligation is to explain why it’s authorized and what it’s intended to do.”
Bratton said the department was trying to determine where Hatfield hit Miller, who was treated for minor injuries at a local hospital and had bruises on his cheek and shoulder. Miller told investigators that he had been hit in the head.
Hatfield told police investigators that he administered distraction blows to the arm and shoulder blades -- not the head -- and that he stopped hitting Miller once the handcuffs were on, sources told The Times. Hatfield also said he kicked and then beat the suspect because another officer yelled that he had a gun.
Bratton declined to comment on reports that Hatfield may have believed Miller was armed.
Mayor James K. Hahn said Saturday that he did not want to speculate about what was in the officer’s mind but said he still had serious concerns about the use of force. “I am demanding a complete investigation and explanation, and it better be good,” he said.
Hahn said he supported Bratton’s decision to reevaluate the authorized use of flashlights.
Sheriff’s deputies also use flashlights to strike suspects, though the flashlights are not specifically authorized by the department for use as weapons, according to a February 2003 report. Merrick Bobb, a special counsel for the county supervisors on the Sheriff’s Department, warned that flashlights cause greater injuries than batons.
Councilman Martin Ludlow, who organized Saturday’s meeting, said he understood that officers need to use force to get suspects to comply. But once they do, he said, the use of force should stop. The videotape, he said, appears to show that the flashlight strikes continued even after the suspect was under control.
Geraldine R. Washington, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, said she believed that officers should not wield flashlights as weapons.
“Our main concern is the way the flashlights are used,” said Washington, who was appointed by Hahn to serve on a committee monitoring the investigation into the beating.
“It is up to the department to make sure that these flashlights are not used to brutalize individuals when they are in the custody of the police.”
The NAACP also issued a statement Saturday calling the arrest “an ugly case of police brutality” and urging that the officers be brought to justice.
There have been previous publicized incidents involving LAPD officers using flashlights to subdue suspects.
In 1996, Officer Alonzo Calderon was videotaped hitting a man in the head with a flashlight after a crowd of gang members got unruly outside a hospital. The city of Los Angeles paid the man, allegedly a gang member, $160,000 to settle the lawsuit. In 1999, Officer Alfredo Mora allegedly struck a man several times in the rib cage with a flashlight while he was seated in the back seat of a patrol car.
Neither officer was prosecuted for those incidents.
During Saturday’s meeting, Bratton told the community members that he hoped to complete the investigation within 60 days.
Bishop Charles Blake, pastor of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, said that the only reason the arrest was brought to the public’s attention was that it was caught on videotape.
“It causes me great concern that there may be countless other incidents that have occurred that we are not aware of,” he said. “This kind of behavior must stop.”
John W. Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, said the beating should be a sober reminder that Bratton still has a lot of work to do in reforming the police department.
“It is crucial that those who are culpable, and those who in the eyes of most of us engaged in excessive force, be held accountable,” said Mack, who is also serving on Hahn’s committee. “This community will accept nothing less.”