The Los Angeles Police Department must take “all available steps” to quickly investigate the fatal shooting of 13-year old Devin Brown or risk a loss of public confidence, according a federal official overseeing police reform.
In a written report, Michael Cherkasky, the court-appointed independent monitor of the department, cautioned the LAPD’s leadership about the danger of being perceived as not acting decisively. The warning came in a regular quarterly report that also called the department’s efforts “admirable” to date.
A judge named Cherkasky in 2001 to monitor progress by the department after the federal government alleged that the LAPD had engaged in a pattern of violating the civil rights of Los Angeles residents, including improperly using force.
Officials have yet to provide a definitive explanation of Devin’s fatal shooting three weeks ago by Officer Steve Garcia, a death that Chief William J. Bratton called “a tragedy.”
According to police, Devin was in a stolen car in South Los Angeles on Feb. 6 when it ran a red light, and Garcia and his partner, suspecting that the driver was drunk, gave chase.
After the car ran up onto a curb and stopped, the police cruiser pulled in behind it. Police said that the car began backing into the cruiser and that at some subsequent point, Garcia opened fire.
Police officials have not yet publicly said where Garcia was standing when he shot 10 times, fatally striking the youth, who was found in the driver’s seat.
Did the officer resort to deadly force because he was in imminent danger of being struck by the car? Or did he fire even though he was out of the car’s immediate path?
Attorney Brian Dunn, who is representing Devin’s family, called Garcia’s position when he fired “the most basic fact.” In addition, the lawyer said, the department had not said where Garcia’s partner, Officer Dana Grant, was during the shooting.
“Many of the rounds seemed to be fired into the passenger side window,” Dunn said. “Where was his partner during all of the shooting? We were not told why this young man had to die under these circumstances.”
Deputy Chief Michael Berkow said Friday that the department had to conduct a thorough investigation before it released more information.
“The law dictates our actions and the process, and we will be neither intimidated nor pressured,” he said. “Nor will we allow the process to be corrupted by political, community or media pressure.”
Pinpointing Garcia’s location would not alone determine “whether this was a lawful, justified shooting or something else,” Berkow said, adding that the incident would be judged by the “totality of the circumstances.”
Others said that investigating such shootings often took time.
“People want instant answers, and you can’t get instant answers,” said retired Los Angeles Police Commission Executive Director Joe Gunn, citing lengthy investigations into police shootings including that of Margaret Mitchell, a homeless mentally ill woman, in 1999 and actor Anthony Dwain Lee at a 2001 Halloween costume party in Benedict Canyon.
“It takes months, not weeks, to simply gather the information and evaluate it,” said John Barnett, who defends police officers in criminal cases. “If they came back in two weeks, you can be assured they did it wrong.”
One of Barnett’s clients was former Inglewood Officer Jeremy Morse, who was charged with assault 10 days after a television station aired a video that showed him slamming a youth against a car. The charges, Barnett said, came before investigators knew there was a second police tape from the scene and that Morse had been injured in the scuffle.
“They didn’t have half the facts,” he said.
Juries twice declined to convict Morse, and he went on to win $1.6 million in damages when another jury concluded that Inglewood had wrongly fired him.
Harland Braun, an attorney who represented police officers in the Rodney G. King beating case and the Rampart scandal, applauded Bratton’s handling of Devin’s case so far.
“It’s a very sensitive issue,” he said. “It has to be done right.”
In such an investigation, most police officers -- even those not directly involved in the shooting -- will assert their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, Braun said. That forces the department’s internal affairs investigators to take “compelled statements” from officers that are strictly confidential.
In Devin’s shooting, investigators are trying to reconstruct the incident in detail using physical evidence. They are examining the position of spent shell casings, blood spatter, skid marks and bullet trajectories.
As they sift through such evidence, investigators also consider the work histories of the officers involved, including complaints, discipline or other use-of-force incidents.
In addition, they transcribe and review officers’ audiotaped communications, gather eyewitnesses accounts and go over the autopsy report -- Devin’s is currently sealed -- including drug tests.
That’s long before the Police Commission and two internal LAPD boards of review draw out the process further.
The legal test of a shooting is whether the officer was justified in feeling that the suspect posed a “deadly threat.” Because of that, investigators have to try to determine what the officer was thinking.
“Perceptions of the officers have to be re-created so investigators can understand his view of the scene and what he saw at various points in time,” said Michael Stone, an attorney who represents police officers.
Police Commission President David Cunningham III said the department had made the Brown shooting a top priority.
“I’ve been in a number of community meetings where people have shared their concerns about the shooting. But there seems to be some willingness after the initial days to give the department the time to investigate,” Cunningham said.
“I am very concerned about losing any public confidence,” he added. “But I think there is an understanding out there that reform in the LAPD doesn’t happen overnight, and it is a journey.”