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Justice Department seeks police reform in Inglewood

The U.S. Department of Justice has found significant flaws in the way Inglewood police oversee use-of-force incidents and investigate complaints against officers and has proposed a host of reforms to help ease fear and distrust among city residents.

As part of a comprehensive review of the department, which is ongoing, Justice Department officials found that Inglewood’s policies on the use of force are poorly written and legally inadequate despite recent reform efforts. In a letter sent to the city’s mayor in December, federal officials called for numerous changes in the way the department trains and investigates its officers.

The Justice Department launched its civil rights probe after a series of officer-involved shootings in 2008 sparked outrage in the city and prompted calls for reform. Federal officials told the city they are continuing with their probe and plan close scrutiny of specific incidents.

A Times investigation, published more than two months before the federal inquiry began, found that Inglewood officers repeatedly resorted to physical or deadly force against unarmed suspects. The Times also raised questions about how the department investigated its officers’ use of force.

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In the 33-page letter to the city’s mayor, the Justice Department acknowledged that the department had begun revising its policies but said some of those proposed reforms didn’t go far enough.

Among the Justice Department’s conclusions:

* Inglewood police routinely assigned certain types of excessive force investigations to supervisors who either wrote the initial incident report or approved it, creating “an apparent conflict of interest.”

* The agency’s rules on using deadly force are vague and inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court guidelines. “The majority of the [department’s] policies and procedures are outdated,” federal officials said.

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* The department provides its officers with “little direction” on when to use electric Taser weapons. The city should prohibit officers from using Tasers on suspects who are restrained.

* The Police Department should create an early warning system to better track excessive force complaints and other conduct. Such a system would help alert supervisors to problem officers.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who was among several politicians who called for an outside investigation in the wake of the shootings, said after reviewing the Justice Department’s letter that some of Inglewood’s policies were “unacceptable.” Waters said she would urge the Police Department to “quickly comply” with the recommendations and would inquire into a possible federal consent decree to oversee the department.

“The number of deaths at the hands of police officers has been alarming,” she said. “These deaths are the result of the failed policy.”

Geoffrey Alpert, an expert on use of deadly force by police, said the Justice Department’s findings suggest that Inglewood’s problems were systemic rather than a question of individual officers making poor decisions.

“If the rules are wrong, it opens officers up to doing the wrong thing,” said Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina who has helped police agencies draft policies.

The department has also come under fire for adopting what some critics consider a bunker mentality in dealing with officer-involved shootings. Some members of the city’s Citizen Police Oversight Commission have complained in the past that they were shut out of investigations into police misconduct. The city also has refused to release a report by an independent consultant hired to evaluate the series of shootings and the department’s use of force.

Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks declined Friday to discuss the specifics of the Justice Department’s findings, saying she was still reviewing them.

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“We’re evaluating policies,” she said. “We’re doing everything that we need to make sure the community can maintain its trust.”

Inglewood Councilman Daniel Tabor said the city was preparing a response “explaining what’s already been done, correcting some of the interpretations of what we currently do and providing some additional information.”

Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said the ongoing “pattern and practice” investigation is a civil matter focused on systemic issues but could lead to criminal investigations if violations are found. He said the Inglewood police have been “fully cooperative and responsive.” Federal authorities also have the option to bring lawsuits to pressure local authorities into reforming operations.

The Times’ investigation found that five of the 11 people shot and killed by Inglewood police between 2003 and 2008 were unarmed. Among the dead was Jule Dexter, who had been stopped for drinking in public in June 2005.

Officer Jose Estrada fired four shots into Dexter’s back and head as, witnesses said, he reached to pull up his baggy pants, which were slipping. Estrada later said he feared Dexter was reaching for a weapon, but none was recovered.

After he was suspended for 16 days, Estrada challenged his discipline in court, complaining that the department’s deadly force policy was confusing.

In August 2009, Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe ruled that there was not enough evidence to support Estrada’s claim that the policy was vague and ambiguous.

But Justice Department officials found that parts of the policy were vague and inconsistent with U.S. constitutional standards.

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The city’s general use of force rules fail to provide officers with clear guidance and give them too much discretion in determining what force to employ, officials wrote. Even a revised policy the agency is considering would fail to meet legal standards, according to the Justice Department.

In their letter dated Dec. 28, federal officials also faulted the department for not offering enough direction or training for officers in dealing with suspects who are mentally ill or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Dexter was both schizophrenic and under the influence of cocaine the day of his death, records show.

The Justice Department also found fault in another area highlighted by The Times, the use of Tasers that deliver high-voltage shocks to suspects.

The newspaper found that officers used Tasers on suspects who posed a questionable threat or who were handcuffed.

Justice Department officials wrote that Inglewood gave its officers little direction in “how and when the Taser should be used.” The Justice Department advised the city to prohibit the use of the weapons on restrained suspects and recommended that it track officers’ use of Tasers.

The Justice Department was also critical of the department’s complaint process, which it said could deter citizens from filing complaints. Officials recommended improvements in community outreach, saying that interviews with residents and others “revealed allegations of distrust and fear” of the police force.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

jack.leonard@latimes.com

Times staff writer Lee Romney contributed to this report.


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