Police Slaying Re-Creation Stirs Doubt
An elaborate re-creation of the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown, staged on a vacant lot in Granada Hills by the LAPD with help from Hollywood experts, casts doubts on a central justification for the shooting: that the officer was standing in the path of the teenager’s oncoming car when he opened fire.
The Feb. 6 shooting unfolded at the end of a brief chase in which Devin drove onto a sidewalk, then backed the stolen car toward officers at 83rd Street and Western Avenue in South Los Angeles.
Ever since, police investigators have been trying to determine whether the officer was standing directly in the path of the car or off to the side.
Police Chief William J. Bratton said Tuesday that by painstakingly reenacting the shooting, detectives had concluded that Officer Steve Garcia was standing to the side of Devin’s red Toyota Camry when he fired 10 rounds into the vehicle, hitting Devin seven times.
The finding is potentially crucial, because Garcia has told investigators that he felt in danger as Devin backed the car toward him, leaving him no choice but to shoot, law enforcement sources say. LAPD rules allow an officer to fire at a moving vehicle if he believes his life or the lives of bystanders are in jeopardy.
Bratton, who plans to submit the department’s report on the shooting to the district attorney’s office next week, said he didn’t believe that the results of the re-creation in themselves showed that Garcia acted criminally. It will be up to prosecutors to decide whether to file charges.
The reenactment showed that although Garcia was not behind Devin’s vehicle when he fired, he had been within the car’s path a few seconds earlier. Several LAPD sources said detectives were examining the possibility that Garcia drew his gun while behind the car but fired seconds later after moving to the side.
Critics of the shooting, however, said the findings underscored their belief that Garcia shot at Devin unnecessarily and that the officer’s life was not in jeopardy.
“If the officer is not in the path of the vehicle, it will be very difficult to sell this as a clean shooting, and that’s just physics,” said Brian Dunn, an attorney representing the Brown family in a civil suit against the city. “A car does not move sideways. It moves forward and backward.”
LAPD officials said the reconstruction of the shooting was the most extensive they had ever undertaken, signaling the extreme sensitivity of a slaying that sparked outrage and protests in Los Angeles’ African American community.
Normally, investigations of officer-involved shootings are performed using photographs and measurements from the scene, and in rare cases, computer modeling.
But within a few days of Devin’s killing, LAPD officials determined that they would need a much more precise accounting of what happened, especially because Garcia’s position in relation to the car had become such a fundamental question.
LAPD officials contacted executives at several movie studios seeking advice and technical assistance on how the department might go about reconstructing -- on a sound stage of one of the studios -- the intersection where the shooting occurred.
An executive at Fox passed the LAPD on to several set designers, who were shown detailed pictures of the shooting scene. But they quickly determined that they could not create the physical conditions of the roadway on a sound stage. They suggested using a vacant lot instead, said Deputy Chief Michael Berkow, who oversaw the probe.
The LAPD settled on a flat lot owned by the Department of Water and Power near Van Norman Dam in Granada Hills. At that point, police officials began working with the city Department of Public Works on re-creating the intersection, complete with crosswalks, rises to imitate curbs and the drainage dip where Devin’s car came to rest.
They went to work, using the measurements and photographs detectives took from the scene.
“We took those [measurements] to the Bureau of Surveying, and they placed stakes in the ground for the various points, and then we paved to those elevations,” said Bill Robertson, head of Public Works. He even found workers who perfectly copied the lane stripes as they were at the intersection.
Added Bratton: “We literally rebuilt the street.”
At that point, detectives brought in Devin’s and Garcia’s bullet-riddled vehicles and lined them up to match photos and measurements taken of the shooting scene.
Detectives determined where Garcia was standing by using a combination of laser beams and wooden rods that traced the trajectories of the bullets, Berkow said. They started from inside the car, looking at where the bullets hit both Devin and the vehicle itself. They were able to trace them through the right passenger side, meaning that they were fired from the side rather than directly from behind, Berkow said.
In the past Bratton has said that Garcia may have fired in the direction of his partner, a point that has caused concern among LAPD investigators because officers are trained to avoid firing toward fellow officers.
Still, detectives could not determine the speed at which Brown was moving in reverse or exactly where Garcia was standing.
Bill Lewinsky, a Minnesota State University-Mankato expert on the use of force against moving vehicles, said he was surprised at the lengths to which the LAPD went in studying the shooting. But he said even the most meticulous re-creations had their limits.
“No matter how much you try, it’s impossible to get an exact replication of what happened when people were reacting naturally,” Lewinsky said. “You get closer to what happened than just simply doing armchair analysis.”
Dunn, the Brown family attorney, was less impressed with the LAPD’s efforts. He said that although the department was making it look as if it were leaving “no stone unturned,” it still wouldn’t release basic evidence in the case, including the results of the autopsy.
“What we are not seeing are specific facts that go to the heart of whether this was a justified shooting,” Dunn said. “It will boil down to: Where was the officer standing when he fired all 10 rounds? Why did he not stop to assess the situation after firing one round?”