Two Los Angeles police officers could lose their jobs, and four others face suspension, for their roles in the flashlight beating of car theft suspect Stanley Miller, according to LAPD disciplinary charges made public Thursday.
Police Chief William J. Bratton, at a morning news conference next to LAPD headquarters, announced the dis- ciplinary action. But citing police officer personnel regulations, he declined to specify the charges or identify the officers, including the pair facing the most serious penalty for the June 23 beating of the African American motorist.
Documents, however, show that they are Officers John Hatfield and David Hale.
Hatfield was shown on live television at the end of a 21-mile car chase and foot pursuit striking Miller 11 times with a large metal flashlight.
Hale allegedly sparked the beating by yelling “Gun!” and later claimed he had felt a hard object, identified as a wire cutter, in Miller’s pocket. A departmental investigation determined there had been no wire-cutter in the suspect’s pocket, although one was recovered from his car.
Hatfield and Hale are accused of using unnecessary force, and Hale has been charged with making “false statements” to investigators, according to the LAPD documents. Both have been relieved from duty pending hearings before the police Board of Rights.
Four other officers will receive suspensions ranging from four to 15 days, unless they appeal to the internal police board.
Miller’s arrest attracted global attention and drew comparisons with the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney G. King.
Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley declined to criminally prosecute Hatfield, citing insufficient evidence and the fact that Miller suffered minimal injuries.
Black community leaders called Bratton’s announcement a step in the right direction.
“Chief Bratton has acted responsibly and has kept the faith and has done something that a number of us have consistently called for, and that is to hold a number of the officers involved accountable,” said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League and head of a mayor-appointed panel monitoring the investigation.
Mack discussed Bratton’s decision at an afternoon news conference called by community leaders at West Angeles Church of God in Christ in the Crenshaw district.
“From a community standpoint, I think the department is making the moves that need to be made,” said Khalid Shah, executive director of the Stop the Violence, Increase the Peace foundation. “Personally, I think all the officers who were involved should be reprimanded.”
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents 9,200 sworn officers including those involved in the Miller incident, said that police were “deeply disillusioned” by Bratton’s decision.
“News video, shot from a helicopter, from one angle and in the dark, does not tell the whole story,” said league president Bob Baker. The union called Bratton’s decision to file administrative charges a response to “shrill coverage” in the media and not warranted by the facts about a twice-convicted car thief trying to evade police. A spokesman for the officers’ attorneys said they would not comment.
Miller, a Compton resident, was driving a stolen Toyota Camry about dawn when police gave chase. With two TV news helicopters and an LAPD helicopter overhead, Miller jumped out of the car and sprinted along Compton Creek. With police chasing him on foot, Miller suddenly stopped running.
Officer Phillip Watson drew and reholstered his weapon, then tackled Miller, who had his hands in the air. Hale also tackled Miller. Hatfield kicked at the suspect, then struck him in the body with a flashlight.
Hatfield and several officers reported they heard Hale yell that the suspect had a gun, according to prosecutors. No gun was found.
Hale told investigators he had felt a hard object in Miller’s pocket. That object, according to a police report on the incident, was the pair of red wire cutters.
But Officer Peter Bueno later told investigators that he found the wire cutters in the stolen Toyota, not in Miller’s pocket. None of the six civilian eyewitnesses, according to a district attorney’s report, heard Hale warn about a gun.
Bratton, who was also at the West Angeles news conference, defended his decision.
“From time to time, these officers make mistakes. Sometimes they are mistakes that are intentional and sometimes they are in the heat of the moment. My role and responsibility as chief of police is to make those decisions” about discipline, Bratton said.
David Cunningham III, president of the Police Commission, supported the chief.
“As I read the charging document, one of the concepts that clearly emerged is the importance of police integrity, and when it comes from the top it will trickle down to the rank and file,” said Cunningham.
But Geraldine R. Washington, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, warned that the Board of Rights could reject Bratton’s call for action.
“It looks like we are heading in the right direction. But there is no assurance that in the end, justice will prevail,” Washington said.
Miller was imprisoned after his conviction for joyriding and evading arrest. Last year, he filed a $25-million claim against the city, alleging that he suffered brain damage and other injuries during his arrest.
The four officers facing suspension are Bueno, six days; Watson, four days; Todd Behrens, 15 days; and Michael O’Connor, five days.
O’Connor and Behrens have been charged with giving misleading statements to supervisors. Bueno is accused of failing to secure evidence, and Watson is alleged to have used unnecessary force and unauthorized tactics.
The suspensions will stand unless the officers appeal to the Board of Rights.
Three others who were at the scene will face no punishment, Bratton said.
The final decision on Hatfield’s and Hale’s discipline will be made by a Board of Rights panel consisting of two commanding officers and a civilian.
The panel will decide if the charges are founded and, if they are, whether to impose penalties, which could include termination. Previous boards have overruled the police chief in high-profile cases.