The Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday rejected the recommendation of Police Chief William J. Bratton and ruled that the officer who fatally shot a 13-year-old after a brief chase violated department rules and should face discipline.
The decision marks the first major test of a panel that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed last summer to provide tougher oversight of the Los Angeles Police Department. Many of the previous civilian commissions have been criticized as a rubber stamp for the chief.
The commission, headed by longtime civil rights activist and LAPD critic John Mack, voted 4 to 1 to set aside Bratton's finding and rule that Officer Steve Garcia violated department policy when he fired into Devin Brown's car as the boy backed toward him. Bratton had concluded that Garcia's actions were justified because his life was threatened.
Commissioner Alan J. Skobin, an attorney and the lone holdover from James K. Hahn's administration, was the only commissioner to back Bratton.
An LAPD board of review will now decide whether Garcia's actions amounted to misconduct and determine punishment, which could range from a reprimand to dismissal.
Villaraigosa called a news conference after the ruling, saying he backed the decision but downplaying the possibility it will create divisions.
"While some may disagree with the outcome, they should do so with the understanding that a full and complete investigation and consideration of the facts has taken place," the mayor said, adding that the commission's work was a "job well done."
But the vote probably will complicate Villaraigosa's and Bratton's relationship with the Police Protective League as it prepares to begin contract negotiations with the city. Both officials -- particularly Bratton -- have courted the union as they push efforts to reduce crime.
League President Bob Baker said the commission's action betrayed an officer who risks his life to protect the public.
"We are angered and dismayed that the Police Commission bowed to community pressure and used hindsight to punish Officer Garcia," Baker said. "The lesson that should be learned from that night is that at 4 a.m. kids like Devin Brown need to be safely home in bed."
At the news conference, Bratton and commission President Mack denied that the ruling opened a rift between the chief and the oversight panel.
"This is not a 'gotcha' kind of thing," Mack said. "This is not the commission making a power play with the police chief. We realize that reasonable people can disagree, even when we are all looking at the same information."
Bratton noted that although he concluded Garcia acted appropriately, the commission's decision "is the final one as it relates to the issue of policy."
Devin Brown's slaying has loomed large at the LAPD and City Hall for nearly a year. It occurred Feb. 6 as Villaraigosa and Hahn were locked in a heated battle for mayor.
Brown was killed after leading officers on a brief car chase in South Los Angeles that ended when the youth ran the car onto a sidewalk and stopped. Garcia said he fired at Brown's car as it accelerated in reverse toward him because he feared for his life.
An elaborate LAPD probe of the case -- including a reconstruction carried out with the help of Hollywood set experts -- backed Garcia's account, and prosecutors decided in December not to file charges against him.
But the shooting generated widespread protests among community activists, who saw it as the latest incident in a history of LAPD misconduct toward African Americans such as the 1965 Watts riots, the 1991 beating of Rodney King and the 1999 shooting of homeless woman Margaret Mitchell.
The commission did not disclose why it determined Garcia violated department policy, a decision that was made behind closed doors after nine hours of presentations and deliberations.
But sources who asked to remain anonymous said some commissioners felt that although Garcia was directly behind the youth's car when the boy began backing up, the officer was well to the side when he opened fire. In that position, they concluded, Garcia was not directly in harm's way.
LAPD policy says officers can fire on moving cars only if there is imminent danger to them or bystanders.
"I am confident that I can speak for my fellow commissioners that our review of this case has been exhaustive, conclusive and has left no stone unturned," Mack said.
The decision took longtime activists by surprise. Many had said before the meeting they expected commissioners would back Bratton's finding, something the panel does in the vast majority of cases.
When Villaraigosa appointed new police commissioners last summer, he promised they would be "vigorous in their oversight."
In addition to Mack and Skobin, the board consists of two former federal prosecutors, Anthony Pacheco and Andrea Ordin, as well as bank executive and civil rights activist Shelley Freeman.
"I'm stunned," said activist and LAPD critic Najee Ali. "This shows real courage and conviction. This was a true litmus test for how far police reform had come. We finally have a Police Commission that doesn't rubber-stamp what the chief wants."
Villaraigosa insisted the commission wasn't taking a radical stand, noting that Ordin and Pacheco are former prosecutors.
"These aren't people that act emotionally," he said. "These are people that make decisions based on the facts."
The mayor also rejected criticism that the commission was turning its back on an officer who was doing his job.
"You know, we live in a country and in a city where civilians ultimately oversee law enforcement," he said.
But union chief Baker said he didn't understand how the commission could fault Garcia's actions.
"Our officer, in the path of a car driven by someone who appeared to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs, thought his life was in danger and had no way of knowing that the driver was underage," Baker said.
He "did what he was trained to do, and he now must suffer lifelong consequences."