A Los Angeles Police Department disciplinary board has secretly decided not to punish the officer who fatally shot 13-year-old Devin Brown two years ago, rejecting an earlier ruling by the civilian Police Commission that the act violated department policy, sources confirmed Tuesday.
Members of an LAPD board of rights, meeting behind closed doors Monday, determined that Officer Steven Garcia was justified in shooting Brown as the youth allegedly tried to back a stolen car into the officer after a brief pursuit.
The shooting sparked outrage in South Los Angeles, with citizens and activists alleging that Garcia overreacted and used excessive force. Last year the city paid $1.5 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Brown’s family.
Monday’s decision, reached by two high-ranking LAPD officials and a civilian representative, effectively dismisses the earlier finding by the Police Commission that the shooting was “out of policy” and that Garcia should be punished.
It also reflects a dramatic change in the way the LAPD metes out discipline. For decades, the LAPD had heard evidence publicly when serious misconduct was alleged. Last summer, however, the California Supreme Court ruled that police officer personnel documents were not public records. Responding to that ruling -- and over the objections of news organizations and civil libertarians -- the LAPD moved to close its disciplinary hearings.
As a result, the charges against Garcia were heard in secret, and the rationale for the board’s decision is similarly being withheld.
The Police Commission acts as the civilian oversight body for the LAPD and has the authority to shape policy, but it cannot discipline officers. Its finding in the Brown case -- which ran contrary to the recommendation of Police Chief William J. Bratton -- was initially hailed by both African American leaders and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as a sign that the LAPD, with its long history of officer misconduct cases, now had firm civilian oversight.
John Mack, president of the Police Commission, said Tuesday that he felt as if he and his colleagues on the commission had been undermined.
“I’m very, very disappointed in that finding,” said Mack, who was unaware of the ruling before being informed by a reporter. “Our commission felt the facts were clear. It was my expectation that the board of rights would see the facts as we saw them and take disciplinary action.”
Bratton said he supported the disciplinary panel’s conclusion.
“I think that’s an appropriate finding,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with that.”
Asked if the decision undermined his civilian bosses, Bratton replied: “Not at all.”
Members of the internal LAPD panel would not explain their rationale for finding in Garcia’s favor, citing the Supreme Court ruling that city lawyers have interpreted as giving broad privacy rights to officers involved in disciplinary proceedings.
“I can tell you the board’s decision was unanimous and the evidence and testimony to support our finding was compelling,” said Capt. Nancy Lauer, a member of the panel. “That is all I feel is prudent to share based on the legal constraints in which we find ourselves.”
Capt. Bruce Crosley, who retired from the department in July but continued to serve as chairman of the disciplinary board, also declined to discuss the case. Ann Reiss Lane, a former police commissioner who served as the civilian member of the LAPD panel, could not be reached for comment.
Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said he had expected Garcia to be exonerated.
“We agree with the board, who relied on law enforcement expertise and the applicable department standards in deciding that Officer Garcia’s actions were in policy on that tragic night,” Baker said.
In November, LAPD officials barred two Times reporters from attending Garcia’s disciplinary hearing because of the state Supreme Court ruling, which restricted access to law enforcement discipline records in a San Diego case.
However, that ruling -- in Copley Press Inc. vs. Superior Court of San Diego -- did not address whether hearings should be closed.
The LAPD also stopped releasing information about officer discipline that historically had been public. Last year, the Police Commission voted to withhold the names of officers involved in shootings and other uses of force, such as baton-strikes, kicks, punches and the use of stun guns. The first case in which the commission invoked that policy involved Garcia’s shooting.
Even though Garcia’s case has been cloaked in secrecy, both Bratton and Mack said they wished they could be more open with the public about police conduct and discipline. Both said they feel bound by legal advice given by City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.
“I like transparency,” Bratton said. “In my previous department [in New York City], all reprimands were written and published throughout the department. I’m not in favor of all the limitations that we operate under here, but it is what it is.”
The events leading to the shooting of Devin Brown began about 4 a.m. Feb. 6, 2005. According to police, Garcia and his partner were on patrol when they noticed a red Toyota Camry being driven erratically. When the driver of the Toyota ran a red light and got on the Harbor Freeway, the officers followed.
Suspecting the driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the officers turned on their emergency lights and siren. But the driver, later identified as Brown, did not stop.
Brown pulled off the freeway and led police on a seven-minute chase on city streets. He lost control of the car at 83rd Street and Western Avenue, where the car jumped a curb and slammed into a wrought-iron fence.
Garcia and his partner pulled up, drew their weapons and took cover behind their open patrol car doors. As they did this, Brown’s 14-year-old passenger fled. Brown, meanwhile, put the car in reverse and began backing up toward police. The Toyota struck the right front fender of the patrol car and continued backing alongside in the direction of Garcia.
The officer fired 10 shots into the Camry. Seven struck Brown, who died at the scene. Officers later learned that the Camry had been reported stolen.
During the department’s internal investigation, a reenactment suggested that Garcia was not in the path of the vehicle when he opened fire. Shooting investigators speculated that he was in the car’s path when he drew his weapon, but had stepped to the side before he began pulling the trigger.
After reviewing that investigation, the Los Angeles County district attorney declined to file charges against Garcia, citing insufficient evidence.
Bratton, finding that Garcia was legitimately in fear for his life, recommended that his actions be deemed appropriate under the circumstances.
The Police Commission, in a 4-1 vote, disagreed. The majority found evidence that the Camry was moving no faster than 2 mph when the shooting occurred and that Garcia was not in the path of the vehicle.
The officer’s belief that his life was in danger “was not objectively reasonable,” the board concluded.
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Devin Brown timeline
Feb. 6, 2005: Driving a stolen car, Devin Brown, 13, leads police on a brief chase. LAPD Officer Steven Garcia fatally shoots Brown after the youth allegedly backs the car toward the officer. Garcia fires 10 shots; seven hit Brown.
Dec. 5, 2005: Prosecutors in the district attorney’s office decline to file charges against Garcia, basing their decision in part on a witness who largely supports the officer’s version of events. They also say the LAPD’s scientific analysis of the incident was inconclusive about where Garcia was standing when he fired.
Jan. 31, 2006: The civilian Los Angeles Police Commission rejects 4 to 1 a recommendation from Chief William J. Bratton and finds that the shooting violated department rules and warrants discipline.
June 7, 2006: The Los Angeles City Council votes to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Brown’s family for $1.5 million.
Jan. 8, 2007: An LAPD disciplinary panel rejects the Police Commission finding and decides that Garcia’s shooting of Brown was justified and that he should not be punished.
Source: Times reporting