Can you trust the police to tell the truth? Reliability under scrutiny as cases tossed
Six Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies reported hearing a single gunshot during a foot chase outside Golden Bird Chicken in Willowbrook. One said he saw a revolver on the man they were after, then a bright muzzle flash.
Lyle Spruill was arrested that December night last year and charged with one of the most incendiary of felonies — attempted murder of a police officer — even though no gun was found. He spent the next six months in jail.
Then, just before Spruill’s scheduled preliminary hearing in June, prosecutors dropped the case. The evidence, including surveillance footage of him running away and the absence of gunshot residue, didn’t support the charges, the district attorney’s office said.
Spruill claims in a lawsuit filed last week that the deputies from the Century Station fabricated the story and withheld evidence that contradicted their version of events.
A gunshot residue report was completed 15 days after Spruill’s December arrest but wasn’t turned over to prosecutors for six months, according to records and interviews. (The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department said that because of personnel changes related to COVID-19, “the handling detective was unaware of the GSR results until just before the pretrial” hearing.)
The allegations come at a time when the reliability of police accounts increasingly is being questioned amid a push for criminal justice reform spurred by videotaped killings such as that of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Spruill’s case is among others in Los Angeles that have been tossed out or rejected by prosecutors, or are under review, because the evidence and stories presented by police don’t hold up.
Security camera footage from December shows Lyle Spruill running away from L.A. County sheriff’s deputies in Willowbrook.
“Every day I walk around, and I think about why,” Spruill, 45, said in an interview with The Times. “Why me? What have I done wrong to make not one cop, not two cops, but several cops to make a statement that I tried to hurt them?”
A Gallup poll after Floyd’s May 25 death found that confidence in police was at a record low, falling to less than half the U.S. population, 48%, for the first time in 27 years. Experts say it appears people are more likely now to question what’s in police reports.
John S. Hollywood, a researcher who leads Rand Corp.’s Center for Quality Policing, says that in cities where a high-profile shooting or force incident triggers civil unrest, relations between police and the community suffer.
“If a department comes under heavy investigation,” he said, “that tends to lead to decreases of community trust and increases in crime.”
Three Los Angeles Police Department officers were charged in July with falsely labeling people they had stopped as gang members or associates on field interview cards. Prosecutors are reviewing hundreds of criminal cases in which the three have been listed as potential witnesses, a move supported by LAPD Chief Michel Moore.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is also facing questions after a whistleblower said that a gang of tattooed deputies called the “Executioners” essentially runs the Compton sheriff’s station. The deputy testified recently that alleged members of the group regularly made false radio calls saying they saw a gun on a suspect.
“A lot of times they either have a hunch or they have information that that person has a gun, but in reality they’ve never seen the gun,” Deputy Austreberto Gonzalez said in a deposition obtained by The Times in an excessive-force lawsuit filed by Sheldon Lockett.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said in a statement that, if those allegations are true, “it brings me great concern.”
“Peace officers are trained to accurately report the facts at all times, to include tactical situations and radio transmissions. This type of behavior, if true, will not be tolerated,” he said.
Lockett alleges he was targeted by deputies “chasing ink” when he was beaten and falsely arrested on suspicion of attempted murder in 2016. The deputies radioed that Lockett had a gun, which he said was a lie. No gun was found. Lockett spent about eight months in jail before prosecutors dropped the charges because of insufficient evidence.
Gonzalez’s allegations were alarming to Compton leaders who said they had long fielded complaints of racial profiling — and retaliation for speaking out — from residents. The city recently called on state and federal officials to investigate possible civil rights violations.
“They terrorize the community, and then they cover their tracks,” Compton Mayor Aja Brown said recently, recalling her own experience in which she said she was wrongfully stopped by deputies. The Sheriff’s Department said it determined that the stop was a lawful detention.
City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers told The Times the validity of arrests made by any deputy with an Executioner tattoo should be examined. “I will not rest until rogue officers are removed out of this city,” she said.
Lex Steppling, director of campaigns and policy at Dignity and Power Now, an organization that fights for the rights of incarcerated people and their families, says law enforcement accounts are being challenged more often now that cameras are ubiquitous.
“Over and over again they say, ‘He was reaching for a gun.’ ‘He had a gun.’ ‘A gun was later recovered at the scene.’ ‘He reached for the officer’s gun,’” Steppling said. “These are things that they say that are not true.”
In the December case, Spruill said he was getting into his car in a parking lot where deputies had detained a separate group of men as part of a shooting investigation. He had been waiting for his girlfriend to get off work nearby after he’d finished a welding job in downtown L.A. Two deputies pulled into the lot, stopped in front of Spruill’s car and searched him for no reason, his lawsuit said.
Grainy surveillance video shows Spruill running away and deputies giving chase.
“Shortly after I saw the muzzle flash, I heard a loud gunshot, then I saw Spruill drop the firearm on the grassy area of the sidewalk, near a vehicle that was parked,” one of the deputies said in a report obtained by The Times.
The deputy and his partner kept running after Spruill until he stopped and put his hands in the air, the report said. The deputy wrote that when he went back to look for the gun, it was gone, as was the parked car. In another report, a detective said the gun could have been whisked away by others in the area.
The charges leveled against Spruill two days later were among the most serious possible: two counts of attempted murder of a police officer and possession of a firearm by a felon, according to court records. Spruill said he lost his job, car and home, where he had lived with his mother.
“It’s not like they’re accusing me of stealing candy from a store,” he said. “They were trying so hard to make sure I never come home again.”
If not for the physical evidence, Spruill and his attorney said, it would’ve been a “he said, she said” case — but it would be Spruill’s word against that of several law enforcement officers.
“We’re not talking about one bad apple making a bad split-second decision,” said his attorney, Greg Kirakosian. “This case involves a series of cooperative efforts to fabricate evidence and withhold exculpatory evidence. It’s the ultimate violation of the public’s trust.”
Villanueva said he was troubled by allegations of misconduct in the case, which is the subject of an ongoing administrative investigation that “must be allowed to uncover the facts.”
“If those findings uncover misconduct by a department member,” he said, “appropriate administrative action will be taken.”
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said in a statement that she was “deeply troubled whenever the loss of someone’s liberty is found to be unjustified.” She added: “We as prosecutors have a legal and ethical duty to file only those charges supported by the evidence. That requires us to dismiss charges when we lose faith that the totality of the evidence will not support a conviction.”
Another attorney, Thomas Beck, alleged that a Lakewood deputy last year fabricated a story about seeing his client, Shaun Marshall, conduct a narcotics transaction at his tire shop, which he said was refuted by surveillance footage. A possession charge against Marshall was dropped two months after the January 2019 incident.
“At the time of trial, the deputy sheriff was unable to identify” Marshall, the district attorney’s office said.
Beck said the deputy changed his story after Marshall complained to the station about his false arrest, saying he had security footage of the incident. “Of course he knew who Shaun was,” Beck said of the deputy.
The Sheriff’s Department said a criminal investigation was ongoing. Beck said Marshall had been interviewed by the Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau, which reviews allegations of criminal misconduct by department members.
In the case of Dalvin Price, whose May arrest and beating in Compton were captured in a 31-second video that sparked outrage in the community, sheriff’s investigators made no mention in their initial paperwork to prosecutors that deputies used force during the incident. Prosecutors cited the omission in a memo in which they declined to file charges of evading and looting.
The memo said deputies responded to a report of thefts at a CVS pharmacy in Compton when they saw Price driving “from the location.” According to the memo, officers said Price ran several red lights and stop signs before his SUV crashed into the center median and a tree.
The video of his arrest, taken by a bystander, begins with Price, 24, lying face down on the pavement, two deputies on top of him.
“On the ground!” a deputy yells.
“I’m on the ground!” Price responds.
Moments later, a third deputy runs up and begins striking Price with his knee.
After the incident, Price said at a news conference that he had complied with deputies.
“They didn’t force me to get on the ground — I got on the ground on my own,” Price said. “They told me to stop resisting, although I wasn’t resisting. I was trying my best to comply with everything they were saying. However, I was still treated like I didn’t have any rights.”
The Sheriff’s Department said an administrative investigation was ongoing and would not comment further.
The district attorney’s declination memo said there was no video of Price attempting to evade officers before the SUV crashed and no clear video of the reported thefts at the CVS. It said no property in the SUV was linked to CVS.
“Based on the totality of the evidence,” the memo said, “it does not appear that a jury would find the suspect guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
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