Officer had been warned in prior case
A Los Angeles Police Department captain who voted not to discipline Officer Steven Garcia this week in the shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown had warned him in a previous disciplinary case that one more offense would probably get him fired.
Yet that history was ignored in the Board of Rights hearing on Brown’s death because LAPD rules typically do not allow an officer’s past misconduct to be considered.
The realization that Garcia had previously come so close to losing his job reopened an old debate, with critics suggesting that the LAPD does not always sufficiently consider the past conduct of officers in deciding whether to punish them.
Over the last few days the Brown decision has touched off sharp recriminations in Los Angeles politics as top officials bemoaned the spectacle of an internal police panel undercutting the work of the department’s civilian leadership, a Police Commission appointed by the mayor.
Because the hearing was also conducted in secret after LAPD officials closed it in response to a recent court ruling, both Police Chief William J. Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called for new laws that would keep such procedures open. The tumult Friday even compelled Garcia to waive his privacy rights and agree to release a transcript explaining the board’s reasoning.
Under LAPD rules, prior discipline can be presented as evidence in a new case only if it is used to demonstrate a pattern of misconduct. If an officer is ultimately found guilty of an offense, past discipline may then be considered in determining punishment. As with similar rules in criminal court, restrictions on the admissibility of past misconduct are intended to protect against undue prejudice.
Andre Birotte Jr., the LAPD’s civilian watchdog, said the department’s rules about what constitutes admissible prior conduct are too restrictive.
Regardless of whether there’s a pattern, Birotte said, offenses such as lying or very specific acts alleged more than once should be made known to those sitting in judgment.
“It’s a tricky issue,” Birotte said, however. “It should be determined on a case-by-case basis.”
Jeffrey C. Eglash, who served as the LAPD’s inspector general from 1999 through 2002, said “the department has historically taken an unnecessarily narrow view” of the use of prior evidence.
“When relevant evidence about an officer’s complaint or use-of-force history that would be admitted in an actual trial is excluded in a Board of Rights, that unnecessarily tilts the playing field” in the officer’s favor, said Eglash, now a private attorney in Connecticut. “I think that’s wrong.”
In the previous disciplinary proceeding against Garcia, he received a severe 44-day suspension for, among other things, intimidating a witness not to testify against him in an excessive-force case. The presiding officer, Capt. Bruce Crosley, issued the patrolman a stern warning:
“You may rest assured,” Crosley told Garcia, “that any recurrent incident will likely end your career with this organization.”
Crosley, although now retired, also sat in judgment of Garcia in the Brown hearing this week.
In a telephone interview, Crosley agreed that his admonition in the earlier case contained harsh words “meant to send a message.” But, having sat on scores of disciplinary panels in the interim, Crosley said he did not recall those earlier details when he served on the Brown panel with another LAPD captain and a civilian representative.
Because Garcia was found not guilty, Crosley said, his past was irrelevant.
“Our decision was based on the evidence in this immediate case alone,” Crosley said.
On Friday, Ann Reiss Lane, the civilian member of the panel, said she was unaware of Garcia’s previous punishment.
“That makes me very uncomfortable that I didn’t know that,” said Lane, a former Police Commission member.
“But,” she added, “we can’t know that.” She declined to comment further.
Garcia fatally shot Brown in 2005 as the youth allegedly tried to back into him with a stolen car. The Police Commission, which provides civilian oversight of department policy, determined that the car was traveling no faster than 2 mph and that Garcia had stepped out of the way by the time he opened fire. The officer’s contention that he fired because his life was in danger “was not objectively reasonable,” the commission concluded.
Garcia’s earlier disciplinary problems stem from an incident in May 1997 in which he and his partner were pursuing robbery suspects.
After a three-mile chase that led from Koreatown to Echo Park, the suspects jumped out of their car and ran in opposite directions. The officers split up and gave chase. Garcia pursued the passenger, later identified as Francisco Morales. He found Morales hiding in some bushes a couple of blocks away.
Morales told internal affairs investigators that he raised his hands in surrender as Garcia approached and that the officer ordered him to lie face-down.
When he complied, Morales said, Garcia kicked him in the face. The officer then handcuffed him and brought him to his feet, Morales said.
When he asked Garcia why he kicked him, Morales said, the officer told him “if he didn’t want the charges to be worse he’d better keep quiet,” records show.
Garcia gave a slightly different account in his interview with an internal affairs investigator.
The officer acknowledged kicking Morales but said he did so in self-defense, believing that the suspect was about to charge him. He denied kicking him in the head, however. He said the blow was to the suspect’s torso.
Sgt. Al Ruvalcaba, who investigated Morales’ complaint, said in an interview Wednesday that he determined there was sufficient evidence to charge Garcia with excessive force. But Ruvalcaba, now retired, said his captain did not formally charge the officer before the LAPD’s one-year deadline had expired. As a result, the excessive-force charge did not proceed to the Board of Rights.
However, Garcia was charged with lying to investigators, threatening witnesses not to testify against him and disobeying an order not to discuss his case.
Garcia’s ex-girlfriend, Grace Ferrer, told the disciplinary panel that Garcia admitted to her that he intentionally kicked Morales in the head and that he was going to lie to investigators about how the suspect was injured, documents show.
According to a transcript, board members were concerned about Ferrer’s objectivity and could not determine whether she was being entirely truthful.
But they did find that Garcia had threatened Ferrer during a conversation in early 1999, before she was due to testify.
“It is the opinion of the board that the profanity and forcefulness with which Garcia admonished Ferrer not to involve herself in the complaint process was intended to serve as a threat to dissuade her from cooperating with the department,” Crosley said at the time.
Garcia was also found guilty of disobeying a direct order by discussing the case with Ferrer in the first place. He was found not guilty of the remaining charges.
Times staff writers Matt Lait and Robert J. Lopez contributed to this report.