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LAPD detective involved in drunken shooting on skid row challenges 55-day suspension

An image from security video
An image from security video of the altercation and shooting involving Det. Michael Johnson on skid row in 2019, provided by the LAPD.
(Los Angeles Police Department)

A Los Angeles police detective who narrowly avoided getting fired after drinking for hours with his subordinates in downtown bars and then shooting a homeless man during an early-morning altercation on skid row in 2019 is challenging the lesser suspension he received.

Det. Michael Johnson, who was hospitalized in critical condition and placed in an induced coma after being badly beaten and losing his gun during the fight, argued in a filing in L.A. County Superior Court last week that the 55-day suspension without pay he received should be overturned as excessive.

“Under all of the facts and circumstances of this case, the penalty imposed ... was excessive and was not based on the evidence presented, and as such, constitutes an arbitrary and capricious abuse of discretion,” Johnson’s complaint stated.

The challenge, which revealed the details of Johnson’s suspension for the first time, comes more than a year after LAPD Chief Michel Moore said publicly that he had recommended Johnson be fired for his actions, and as the L.A. County district attorney’s office continues to review the shooting.

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An off-duty 20-year veteran Los Angeles police officer was in critical condition Friday after a fight with another man in downtown’s skid row ended with the officer shooting the suspected assailant, police said.

It also comes amid a growing debate in American policing about officers who violate use-of-force policies being allowed to remain on the job after secretive disciplinary hearings that obscure findings of wrongdoing.

While Johnson has maintained that he saw the homeless man who beat him pull a gun first, review panels for the LAPD have questioned that account — finding no evidence that the other man was armed and concluding that Johnson was in the wrong for wandering into a dangerous neighborhood while drunk, armed and alone.

Johnson could not be reached and his attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment. An LAPD spokesman confirmed Wednesday that Johnson is currently serving as a Pacific Division detective but declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.

In a report to the civilian Police Commission in December 2019, Moore wrote that an investigation had determined that Johnson, then the officer in charge of the 77th Street Division’s narcotics enforcement unit, had attended a leadership training session downtown before joining his subordinates for a “promotional party” at the Seven Grand bar, where he “consumed an unknown quantity of alcoholic beverages throughout the evening.”

Between 12:30 and 1 a.m., Johnson and others from the party left Seven Grand and went to the Golden Gopher bar in the 400 block of West 8th Street, where Johnson “consumed additional alcoholic beverages,” Moore’s report said.

After the Gopher closed about 2 a.m., Johnson was separated from his colleagues and left the bar alone.

Investigators said Johnson soon showed up at the department’s Central Division station, where an officer working security smelled alcohol on him and told him to see the watch commander about having someone take him home. Surveillance video showed Johnson went inside and into a station bathroom, then left the station again on foot.

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A man shot by an off-duty Los Angeles police detective during a confrontation in downtown’s skid row that left both in critical condition last week was expected to be released from the hospital without facing arrest, officials said Wednesday.

Investigators said Johnson’s apartment was more than a mile from the Gopher Bar, and that his blood-alcohol content was later determined to be .329% — which is more than four times the legal limit to drive a car in California.

As he continued walking, Johnson said he encountered a homeless man — later identified as Michael Wise — who repeatedly made demands for money, which he rebuffed, and then brandished what Johnson believed was a gun. Johnson alleged that he said, “Hey, I’m a cop. Drop the gun,” but had no memory of the following moments or of firing his own weapon into Wise’s abdomen.

Moore wrote that investigators have had trouble verifying certain facts in the case because there was no clear video of the encounter, Johnson said he couldn’t remember key details and Wise declined to answer certain questions. However, video showed Johnson interacting with someone near a tent before Wise emerged from behind a tent and approached Johnson, Moore’s report said.

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In an interview with KABC-TV in April 2019, Wise identified himself as a former U.S. Marine and said he had acted in self-defense, repeatedly punching Johnson after Johnson aggressively approached a woman Wise was with, grabbed her arm and said, “Come here,” and then shot Wise as he attempted to intervene.

A witness reported hearing screaming and two gunshots and then seeing Wise strike Johnson with a metal trash can. Officials in the days after the incident said Wise was not facing arrest.

After the fight, Wise walked to the nearby Midnight Mission, where he called for help and an ambulance met him. Johnson was found on the street with multiple blunt-force injuries to his face that resulted in “bleeding in the space surrounding his brain, orbital and nasal fractures and extensive damage to the soft tissue and muscle around his eyes,” according to Moore’s report.

An internal review found the shooting was precipitated by “a series of untenable, tactically poor decisions” by Johnson, Moore wrote — including ignoring other options to get back to his apartment, walking through a notoriously dangerous part of the city in the middle of the night and engaging with individuals on the street after becoming “significantly intoxicated.”

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The board noted inconsistencies in Johnson’s account, and was “extremely concerned” with his “level of intoxication,” which it found to be “a significant factor” in his inability to properly assess his surroundings and make proper decisions, Moore’s report said.

After receiving Moore’s report, the Police Commission ruled unanimously that Johnson had broken department policies by drawing his handgun and using lethal force in the encounter, and Moore recommended Johnson be terminated as a result.

An administrative review panel also found that Johnson had violated policy, but, instead of firing him, suspended Johnson for 55 days without pay, which Moore signed off on in December, according to court records.

In his filing last week, Johnson argued that Moore’s findings and the board’s suspension “were not supported by the evidence” that was presented to the board, and should be overturned.

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He also requested a Superior Court judge order all references to the board’s findings or the internal affairs investigation be removed from his personnel record, order the city to pay his attorney and other legal fees, and provide any “further relief” the judge may deem appropriate.


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