Inglewood police break silence
Four days after officers fatally shot a homeless man who had a toy gun in his waistband, Inglewood Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks broke her silence on the shooting Thursday, expressing concerns about the officers’ tactics and saying she had placed seven of them on administrative leave.
“We could have done a better job tactically,” Seabrooks said of Sunday’s shooting in which officers fired as many as 47 rounds, killing the man and wounding a motorist as well as a dog. “I would have preferred that far fewer rounds would have been fired.”
Seabrooks, who has been chief of the 190-officer department since last year, said the shooting was “very disturbing to the community, to the administration, the Police Department.”
Her comments, in an interview with The Times, followed the release of a statement by the Inglewood City Council calling on Seabrooks to consider “a sweeping training program” for the entire department.
Sunday’s shooting of Eddie Felix Franco, 56, was the department’s fourth fatal officer-involved shooting in as many months.
Three of those slain by police were unarmed, causing concerns among residents and police activists that officers were using poor judgment when deciding to use deadly force.
Seabrooks has also drawn criticism for failing to provide the public with details about the shooting after it occurred. She defended herself, saying she did not want to release information before it had been verified.
In Franco’s case, police said officers opened fire when Franco appeared to reach for a gun in his waistband. The object was actually a realistic-looking toy gun, Seabrooks said. The toy had an orange tip, but it was concealed from the officers’ view, she added.
Seabrooks said Franco appeared to be intoxicated and failed to follow officers’ orders to stand still and keep his hands up.
A source close to the investigation told The Times that officials were looking at the possibility that the shooting was a case of “contagious fire” -- a phenomenon in which an officer opens fire after he hears other officers firing and misinterprets the shots as being an attack.
The source, who requested anonymity because the investigation was continuing, said officials were also trying to determine whether the officers were appropriately positioned to avoid firing on civilians.
The shooting occurred near the busy intersection of East Hillcrest Boulevard and South Market Street, near a barbecue restaurant filled with patrons. One of the rounds grazed the head of a nearby motorist, and bullet marks could be seen on a wall near the shooting scene.
The wounded dog belonged to another homeless man.
Police officials have refused to identify the involved officers. Seabrooks said she planned to release their identities today.
The City Council, which had also largely remained silent on the most recent incident, met behind closed doors for about 3 1/2 hours Thursday to discuss the shootings. When the council adjourned, it released a one-page statement saying the officers involved in the shooting would not return to the field until they had “received enhanced training.”
“These recent and tragic officer-involved shootings are deeply disturbing to the City Council, as they are to all citizens,” the council said in its statement. “The City Council has directed Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks, the city administrator and the city attorney to take immediate steps to evaluate and implement, if necessary, a sweeping training program for officers department wide.”
In an interview Thursday evening, Councilman Daniel Tabor said he and his colleagues decided they needed to be more involved in helping the chief run the department.
“Before, we were delegating in communication with the chief; now we’re taking more direct action,” he said.
Adrianne Sears, chairwoman of the citizens’ police oversight commission, said the council’s action was not enough.
“Inglewood police officers are sworn to protect the residents of Inglewood. But given recent events, the community has come to question the department’s effectiveness,” she said. “This is a step in the right direction, but it’s a step. This certainly is not all that needs to be done.”
In addition to Inglewood’s internal investigation, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Office of Independent Review and the district attorney’s office are investigating all four shootings in which Inglewood officers shot civilians in recent months:
On May 11, officers killed Michael Byoune, 19, and wounded two other men. Police reports said the officers mistakenly believed the men, who were unarmed, were firing at them. Seabrooks later called the shooting “a very tragic outcome.”
On July 1, Ruben Walton Ortega, a 23-year-old alleged gang member, was shot and killed by an Inglewood officer when police said he reached into his waistband as he ran from an officer. Police said at the time that the officer believed Ortega was armed. Seabrooks said he was not.
On July 21, police shot and killed Kevin Wicks, 38. Police said Wicks raised a gun at Officer Brian Ragan, who was responding to a report of a family disturbance at Wicks’ apartment complex. Ragan was one of two officers involved in the Byoune shooting.
The string of shootings has led the state’s Legislative Black Caucus to ask state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to investigate the Inglewood Police Department.
A spokesman for Brown’s office said the attorney general would wait until the district attorney and Office of Independent Review were finished with their probes before making a decision to investigate.
Meanwhile Thursday, Franco’s older brother said in a telephone interview that he was in disbelief and angry about the shooting. “We lost track of him a year ago,” said Arthur Franco. “We were hoping he wasn’t lying dead in the desert.”
Franco said his brother had been living on the streets since 1996. But before that he had been married and had worked for a telephone company for 12 years. He was a father of four children.
He said his brother had struggled with alcoholism and drug use and was often in and out of rehab centers, as well as jails near the Coachella Valley. Franco said family members took turns trying to take care of him, but in the end, Eddie Franco liked staying outside.
Family members said it wasn’t unusual for him to be away for a long period of time, but said this particular time it had been too long.
“We were about to file a missing-persons report,” Franco said. “Then we learned about his death.”
Franco said he had been watching the news about the Inglewood police shooting but didn’t think anything of it, other than the police had been involved in the fourth shooting. Tuesday afternoon he said a relative called him to say that his younger brother had been shot by police officers.
“We understand he had a toy gun and police had to do what they had to do,” Franco said. “Still, he was drunk. How was he going to injure anybody?”
Times reporters Jack Leonard and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.