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Baca Orders Inquiry Into Fatal Barrage

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Times Staff Writer

Faced with the third case in a year of deputies firing scores of shots at a suspect, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca on Thursday said he had ordered an investigation into whether six deputies used too much force earlier this week when they unleashed 70 rounds at a suspect.

Scrutiny of the shooting intensified as officials Thursday revealed that at least one deputy had fired so many shots that he reloaded his weapon during the Walnut Park incident, which left 27-year-old Carl Williams dead.

“Obviously, we have to look at this very closely. We will get to the bottom of this fast,” Baca said. “We will know the motivation of each of the shooters. They know what the policy is here. Because it is the heat of battle, it doesn’t dismiss your objectivity.”

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The shooting comes a year after deputies in Compton had fired 120 rounds at a suspect they were chasing on a residential street. Some of the bullets flew into nearby homes and embedded in walls.

After that incident, the Sheriff’s Department imposed rules that made it more difficult for deputies to fire at moving cars and to fire multiple times. Baca said he was concerned that the shooting could have been a case of “contagious fire,” in which deputies fire their weapons because they hear a gunshot. He said he hoped that the new rules would reduce such problems.

But in January, deputies fired more than 50 shots into a Compton house where a suspect was holed up. That case is being investigated by the department’s Internal Affairs detectives.

Michael Gennaco, head of the Office of Independent Review, a sheriff’s watchdog agency, said the department’s internal review of the Walnut Park shooting would include an examination of whether deputies needed to discharge so many rounds, whether they were influenced by contagious fire and whether they endangered residents. The shooting occurred at the end of an alley near apartment buildings.

Baca and Gennaco stressed that it was too early to judge the deputies and that the circumstances of the chase could have meant that the 70 shots were justified.

Sheriff’s officials have not said how many shots the officer who reloaded his weapon fired. Each clip in the deputy’s 9-millimeter handgun holds 15 rounds, with an additional bullet in the chamber. So the deputy probably fired at least 16 rounds plus whatever shots he discharged from the second clip.

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“It adds a complexity to issues in this shooting when a deputy reloads,” Gennaco said. “It gives a deputy another opportunity to reassess. That means there has to be numerous threats in the mind of the deputy” for the shooting to be within department policy.

The pursuit of Williams began shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday, when deputies in a patrol car said they saw Williams driving erratically near 113th Street and Mona Boulevard and tried to pull him over, sheriff’s homicide unit Capt. Ray Peavy said.

Williams allegedly drove 60 mph through an alley before plowing into a patrol car. He then drove into a light pole, Peavy said, prompting two deputies to leave their cars and move toward him. Williams allegedly put his car in reverse and drove toward the deputies, hitting a patrol car. He pulled forward, then backed into a second cruiser. The six deputies on the scene opened fire.

Though it was unclear how many times Williams was hit, the deputies fired from relatively close range, hitting the vehicle multiple times and shooting out its back window.

A resident in a nearby apartment, Alvaro Ramirez, 18, said he heard gunfire for about 30 seconds, during which he dove for cover.

Investigators found a handgun in Williams’ car and drugs in his possession. But they said the deputies were unaware of the gun when they opened fire and cited the car as the deadly weapon in their reports.

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Peavy, who is handling the criminal investigation of the shooting, said the unusual nature of the pursuit might have required an unusual amount of force.

“There was a lot of activity going on. It was continuous action,” he said. “When a deputy shoots at someone they continue to assess the threat. Here the suspect kept going, hitting the radio cars ... there was a pretty good reason for continuing to shoot.”

The Sheriff’s Department has been trying to reduce the number of shootings in which many rounds are fired for some time. Some of those shootings have been attributed to contagious fire, which Gennaco has likened to a chain reaction in which deputies who hear gunshots fire almost as a reflex.

In 2004, deputies fired 111 rounds at a man with an assault rifle in Carson. Businesses were sprayed with bullets, and a roofer working a block away was wounded.

The rules imposed last year allow deputies to fire at moving cars only if their lives or those of bystanders are at risk. In addition, the department requires deputies to make an independent decision about firing, rather than fire simply because another deputy is shooting.

Gennaco said no data has been analyzed to determine whether the rules have changed deputies’ behavior.

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The Walnut Park shooting came as the Sheriff’s Department and Baca were struggling with several major issues, including violence in the jails and the early release of inmates because of jail overcrowding.

Baca said the internal investigation was ongoing but investigators would consider “contagious fire” as playing a role in the Walnut Park shooting.

But he also said the deputies could have been in danger because the suspect allegedly tried to run them down.

“You can never dismiss a vehicle in the hands of a desperate person as a weapon that could harm and kill someone else,” he said. “How deputies tactically were exposed to this suspect who tragically has died has to be looked at very closely.”

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