Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck fired a veteran police detective Wednesday after a disciplinary panel found he made racially charged comments about a black civil rights attorney and a 1997 shooting in which the detective killed a black officer.
The decision to fire Det. Frank Lyga was seen as a major test for Beck, who has been accused of being inconsistent in handling officer discipline and previously came under fire for his decision not to terminate a well-connected officer caught on tape uttering a racial slur.
Lyga’s attorney said the department notified him that Beck had signed the paperwork to fire the narcotics detective Tuesday. The Police Commission was formally notified Wednesday. Cmdr. Andrew Smith confirmed that Lyga is no longer an LAPD employee but said he could not comment further, citing a state law that makes police discipline confidential.
A three-person department board of rights panel recommended that the 28-year veteran be fired for his controversial remarks made last November at a training session. The panel said his comments “caused irreparable damage to the department’s image and gave fodder to our detractors who believe that the LAPD harbors racist officers.”
Lyga’s attorney, Ira Salzman, said Beck signed the termination papers the same day the board of rights briefly met in a conference call to clarify last week’s decision. Salzman said the chief did not give him enough time to submit a letter to Beck in Lyga’s defense.
“This is terribly unfair,” he said. “The speed and haste of this decision is unprecedented.”
In his comments, Lyga called prominent black civil rights attorney Carl Douglas an “ewok” — a short, furry creature from “Star Wars” movies — said a female LAPD captain had been “swapped around a bunch of times” and described a lieutenant as a “moron.”
He also discussed shooting fellow officer Kevin Gaines, an incident that sparked racial tensions within the LAPD because Lyga is white and the slain officer was black. Lyga was working an undercover narcotics operation when he became involved in a traffic dispute with Gaines, according to police accounts. Neither man apparently knew the other was a police officer.
At the end of the lecture, Lyga recalled a confrontation with Douglas, the attorney representing Gaines’ family, who asked if Lyga had any regrets about the shooting.
“I said, ‘No, I regret he was alone in the truck at the time,’” Lyga said. “I could have killed a whole truckload of them and I would have been happy doing it.”
Lyga admitted some of his remarks were inappropriate, and he apologized. His attorney said Lyga explained that he should have said he would have shot anybody who was trying to kill him. The detective denied his remarks were racist.
But the panel disagreed, finding that many of his comments had a “racial tone.”
“You stated in your testimony that you have been fighting the negative image of being a racist cop killer, but then you, intentionally or not, confirmed this image during this speech,” the panel concluded, according to a copy of the transcript from last week’s board of rights meeting.
The speech was recorded by an officer in the audience.
Douglas, the attorney derided by Lyga, said he was thrilled by Beck’s decision.
“The LAPD doesn’t ... need Frank Lygas among their officers,” he said. “The mentality he expressed is from a bygone era. There is now a new LAPD — an enlightened LAPD that rightfully is less tolerant of officers having racially tinged view points.”
Beck, who has rarely rejected the recommendations of disciplinary panels on firing officers, declined to uphold the termination of Officer Shaun Hillmann earlier this year. A board of rights found that Hillmann referred to an African American man as a “monkey” and gave false statements to investigators. Beck imposed a 65-day suspension.
Critics said Hillman received preferential treatment because his father and uncle, former Deputy Chief Michael Hillmann, worked for the LAPD.
Tyler Izen, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, declined to compare Hillmann’s case to Lyga’s but said Lyga apologized and did not deserve to lose his job.
“There is not a shred of evidence those comments were racially motivated, and there is no evidence of that in Frank’s career,” Izen said.
The board of rights panel noted that Lyga had been the subject of two previous complaints alleging that he made inappropriate remarks in the early 1990s. The panel concluded that Lyga’s most recent remarks made him a liability for the department while testifying in court or if he were involved in another shooting.
“In listening to your speech,” the panel told him, “it did not appear to be one of a wounded warrior, but one from an arrogant individual who was proud of his defiance, almost bragging about his conduct and disrespect for this department.”