Good cop makes a bad decision

Remember the televised chase that ended with a Los Angeles police officer beating a suspected car thief with a flashlight?

John Hatfield, who was fired by LAPD Chief Bill Bratton for using unnecessary force in that Compton beating, is on a sofa next to me and we're watching a video of the incident in the Monrovia home of a friend of his.

I've got to admit, I'm a little uncomfortable, given that I'm one of the people who said back in June of 2004 that Hatfield should lose his job.

To be precise, what I said was: "Any cop who'd whack a captured suspect 11 times, on live TV no less, is too dumb to keep past lunch."

In the next few months, the 38-year-old Hatfield will be going to court in an attempt to get his job back. Although he's studying to be a nurse, he aches to wear a badge again. And he wanted me to hear why he did what he did that morning 3 1/2 years ago.

"Chasing car thieves was one of the things I really enjoyed doing," Hatfield says as we watch suspect Stanley Miller speed through South L.A. in a stolen Camry, with Hatfield leading a caravan of cops in hot pursuit. He liked the feeling of catching someone in the act and returning stolen property to the poor soul who got ripped off.

Hatfield is using a red laser on the TV screen, pointing out little details while rewinding and replaying the video. He says that during the chase, Miller dipped down more than once, perhaps reaching for a gun. Hatfield opened his own car door while driving, anticipating that Miller might at any time leap out of the car and start shooting.

"I'm going to use the car door as my shield," Hatfield says.

That never happens.

But when Miller finally stops after a 30-minute chase and begins running, Hatfield still suspects he might have a gun. The fact that Miller is holding his left arm close to his chest reinforces the idea.

In the foot chase, Hatfield is the third cop to reach Miller, who has run out of gas and is raising his hands.

Another cop aims his gun at the suspect, re-holsters it, then tackles him.

That was a critical blunder, according to the internal review that followed. The officer should have kept his gun pointed at the suspect until the other cops cuffed him.

Instead, a melee breaks out, with Hatfield joining the brawl. His first move is a wild, vicious-looking kick that misses Miller, and then he drops to the ground and begins swinging the flashlight and driving his knees into him.

"Whomp, whomp, whomp," I wrote in my 2004 column, repeating the word 11 times, once for each blow Hatfield landed.

None of it is pretty. Hatfield is going like a windmill, and though he says even the knee-drilling of Miller was tactical, it looks gratuitous to me. Hatfield argues that he did not believe Miller was completely subdued, and he heard one of the other officers say the suspect had a gun.

"His left arm is under his chest," Hatfield says as we play back the video. "That's the one I was concerned with."

Hatfield says his flashlight blows were aimed at weakening the left arm. As we watch the video, he convinces me I was probably wrong when I wrote that he was waling on a man "who was already restrained."

Miller was down, yes, and certainly wasn't going anywhere at that point, with three cops on him and more arriving. But it appears that he might still be resisting by not surrendering his left arm.

Unfortunately for Hatfield, that argument didn't hold much water at his Board of Rights hearing, where a panel that included two Los Angeles Police Department commanders ruled that Hatfield was out of control and should be fired. The panel specifically noted that the kneeing looked "malicious."

I don't think Hatfield's cause was helped by the actions of another officer at the scene who appeared to be gesturing for the pack of light-skinned cops to ease up on the African American Miller. This officer appears to then point a thumb over his shoulder, as if warning officers that an African American sergeant is about to arrive.

And let's not forget that the initial police report erroneously said a pair of wire cutters were found in Miller's pocket. That seemed like a convenient explanation for why the officers feared a gun and acted as they did, except that it wasn't true. Police later corrected the report, saying the wire cutters were found in Miller's car, not his pocket. Makes you wonder whether Hatfield was the one who deserved the harshest punishment.

In the end, there was no gun at all. When police finally opened Miller's hand, they found $8.

Bratton called the whole thing a mess. Hatfield doesn't deny there were problems start to finish, and concedes he could have acted differently. But as he notes, county prosecutors said they could not prove that Hatfield acted without "lawful necessity."

All this time later, Hatfield can't let go of it.

Miller, sentenced to three years in prison for evading arrest, got a $450,000 settlement from the city despite having only minor abrasions. And Hatfield, who had no other substantial complaints against him in eight years of mostly commendable service, lost everything for 30 seconds worth of decision-making.

"What hurts the most is the suggestion that I was a racist," says Hatfield, whose wife is Iranian, whose mother is of Mexican descent and whose best man at his first wedding was African American.

He thanks me for having said in my column that his actions didn't strike me as racially motivated, just overzealous. The former officer says he loved working South L.A. because so many good citizens badly need protec- tion from gangsters and thieves.

Bratton would not talk about the Hatfield case because of pending litigation, but a senior cop who asked not to be named said that Hatfield should not have jumped into a pile and used his flashlight on a man he thought was armed. A smarter move would have been to stand back, reassess and perhaps train his gun on Miller until he was brought under control.

For another opinion, I asked civil rights attorney and police reform activist Connie Rice if she'd watch the video with me. Come on over, she said.

Rice has critics on both sides -- those who think she's too tough on the police, and those who think she's too inclined to rationalize some of their controversial behavior. To my knowledge, she had taken no position on the Miller case, other than to initially urge no rush to judgment.

"I sat through Hatfield's Board of Rights hearing," she said when we met. "I said to Chief Bratton at the time that I would not have fired Hatfield."

Why not?

"He was one of the good ones," she said.

Rice said she checked with sources in the LAPD and in South L.A. right after the incident. Among other things, she learned that Hatfield occasionally shot baskets with neighborhood kids. He also helped raise money for a scholarship program for low-income kids.

That's not to say she excused his actions in the Miller arrest, or those of other officers. As we watched the video in her office, she cringed more than once, attributing the tactical blunders to training lapses.

"This is a melee," she said as we watched the pileup, with Hatfield slugging away.

There is no question he used bad judgment and excessive force and appeared to be on an adrenaline high, Rice said. But given the mistakes that had already set things in motion, and given his reputation and record, she thought Hatfield should have been suspended without pay and then assigned to teach other officers how to avoid the mistakes made in the Miller arrest.

So why was he fired?

"The rules are different" in a high-profile incident, Rice said, especially one involving a black suspect and an African American community that sees the LAPD through an 80-year prism. There were protests at the time, comparisons to the Rodney King case and a call for heads to roll.

"I think the pressure to respond to the community was huge."

Rice said there's been "a sea change" under Bratton in terms of the LAPD's understanding of the need to earn the trust and cooperation of minority communities. The chief might have fired Hatfield, she said, to send a message to both cops and the community, and that's not a bad thing.

Hatfield doesn't buy the notion that sacrificing him was good for the community. Officers are no longer policing as aggressively as they need to, he said, because they fear the kind of second-guessing that cost him his job.

So should Hatfield have been fired?

Probably. Two years into the job, Bratton had to prove that he was running a different kind of department. But the case is more nuanced than I acknowledged at the time, and for that, I apologize to Hatfield.

When I left him after our first meeting, I asked if I could borrow the DVD of the chase to study it more.

Sure, he said, but only if I promised to give it back.

"I might want to show it to my kids one day," he said. "I'm proud of what I did as a cop."

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steve.lopez@latimes.com

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