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LAPD Panel Restricts the Use of Force

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Police Commission on Wednesday prohibited officers from shooting at moving vehicles unless another deadly threat exists, tightening long-standing LAPD policy the week after the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old who had led police on a short car chase.

The 5-0 vote came with little debate. On Tuesday -- the day of Devin Brown’s funeral and burial -- commissioners had been unable to agree on a new policy. Several attributed the unanimous vote to small but significant changes made overnight in the wording of the proposal.

Mayor James K. Hahn, who is fighting for reelection, said Tuesday that he wanted “this matter to be resolved immediately.” Under pressure from the mayor, who appointed all five members, the commission reconvened Wednesday to try again.

“Obviously, we’ll never adopt a policy that would take away the officer’s own right of self-defense,” Hahn said at a news conference after Wednesday’s vote. “But this policy we think will give clear guidance that there’s too many problems shooting at moving vehicles, and it ought to be avoided as much as possible.”

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Police Commissioner Rose Ochi said she heard the mayor’s call for action “loud and clear” and called the policy “an important step toward showing leadership in this city.”

Police Chief William J. Bratton said the new guidelines brought his department in step with many other major police departments nationwide. Officers now will be trained to “do everything to the best of [their] ability to get out of the way” of a vehicle that is moving toward them. They will be trained to not consider a vehicle on its own to be “a threat that justifies an officer’s use of force.” He said he saw “no clear exemptions.”

Under the old policy, officers had been taught that a moving vehicle heading at them could constitute a deadly threat. Though it was discouraged, they were permitted to fire if they thought their lives or the lives of others were in jeopardy.

Since 1985, LAPD officers have shot at moving cars about half a dozen times each year, killing 25 people and injuring at least 30 others, according to a Times review of police records last year. That review found that 90% of the shootings resulted in a reprimand or retraining.

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The incidents cost the city millions of dollars in civil lawsuits.

Bratton had called for an updated policy a year ago after his officers shot and killed a robbery suspect who had backed toward them slowly after a 90-minute chase that ended in Santa Monica. That shooting was shown by TV stations taping the pursuit from helicopters.

But when Devin Brown, an eighth-grader, was shot at 10 times in South Los Angeles shortly before 4 a.m. Feb. 6, the same policy was still in place. The death of Devin, who police said was driving a stolen car at the time, brought criticism and questions about why police shooting policy had not been changed.

The incident is under investigation by the LAPD, the FBI and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

Bratton first said it would take weeks to finalize a new policy but then reversed himself and completed the new guidelines in days, acknowledging that he was under political pressure from Hahn.

Bratton said Wednesday that the last five cases of an officer shooting at a moving vehicle -- including the Santa Monica incident -- had all been ruled “out of policy.”

Further, as articulated by the new policy, Bratton said, there were numerous factors that he believed almost always made such shootings ill-advised.

The new policy states that firing bullets is “extremely unlikely to stop a moving vehicle,” “may miss the intended target or ricochet and cause injury to officers or other innocent persons,” and may cause the vehicle to crash and injure people.

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The policy agreed to Wednesday had small, but legally significant, changes to the one rejected the day before.

One wording change removed the presumption that a moving vehicle constitutes a deadly weapon -- shifting the burden of proof to an officer who decides to shoot in such a circumstance.

“You start with the assumption it wasn’t OK to shoot at a car,” Bratton said.

But legal observers and commissioners said an officer would still have the opportunity to try to prove that firing at the vehicle was the only choice.

Commissioner Alan Skobin said Wednesday that he was satisfied with the new language even though it did not contain his request that evaluations of shootings include a consideration of whether a driver intended to harm an officer.

In addition to clarifying the burden of proof when a shooting does occur, the final version of the policy also tightened guidelines on whether an officer may shoot from a moving vehicle. Instead of stating that “firearms generally shall not be discharged from a moving vehicle,” the final version removes the word “generally,” as Skobin requested.

Ricardo Garcia, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said he was pleased with the prohibition on shooting at cars. “It’s a leap forward,” he said.

He said shifting the burden to the officer to prove that he or she had to shoot at a vehicle “was a good change.” However, he said, some parts of the new policy allowed an officer’s reasoning to be “too subjective.”

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Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said that although his union members believed the existing policy did not need to be changed, he was gratified that the final version allowed for an officer’s self-protection.

Baker said the language amended between Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s versions rightly acknowledged the possibility that an officer or someone else being threatened might have “no reasonable or apparent means of escape.”

In 30 to 45 days, instruction on the new policy is scheduled to begin during roll call for all of the department’s 9,200 officers. Scenario training for patrol officers will follow.

Bratton said officers’ lives would not be endangered by the change, noting that since the New York Police Department adopted a similar policy in 1972, no officers had been killed as a result.

“The commitment to the men and women of this department is, we will train them better than we have ever trained them before on this issue,” he said.


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