L.A. SWAT officer violated policy in use of Taser, police panel says
A Los Angeles police SWAT officer violated department policies last year when he used a Taser on a mentally ill homeless man standing on a downtown rooftop who then fell to his death, the LAPD’s civilian overseers recently concluded.
The Police Commission voted 3 to 1 in support of Chief Charlie Beck’s conclusion that a veteran officer’s tactics “substantially and unjustifiably deviated” from his training, according to records obtained by The Times.
The officer said he had fired the electric stun gun to prevent Carlos Ocana from climbing a ladder back up a rooftop billboard. And, he told department investigators, he thought the man would fall in a way that would not hurt him. Instead, the 56-year-old fell to his death.
Another officer on the roof grabbed Ocana’s leg, but couldn’t keep hold, records show. Ocana fell more than 15 feet and landed in a parking lot below, just missing one of two air cushions that firefighters had deployed, the report states. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.
In his report to the commission, Beck said the officer, as a SWAT member, had the tactical expertise, extensive training and other skills to “ensure the highest degree of operational effectiveness.”
“I have high expectations for SWAT. They meet or exceed them almost every time,” Beck told The Times. “This was a rare exception.”
Sources familiar with the matter said Beck’s findings were harsher than those of the commission’s inspector general, Alex Bustamante, who did not find fault in the officer’s overall tactics and use of the Taser.
The names of the officers involved in the incident were redacted from the report provided to The Times. But multiple sources identified the officer who shot the Taser as Stephen Scallon.
Scallon, who has spent most of his 26 years in the LAPD with the elite Metropolitan Division, received the agency’s highest honor, the Medal of Valor, and was recognized at the White House for his role in a deadly 2008 shootout in Winnetka that left one officer dead and another seriously wounded. Scallon helped pull the wounded officer, who was shot in the face, from the house as other officers exchanged gunfire with the suspect.
Scallon could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The incident involving Ocana unfolded the night of May 24, when officers from the LAPD’s Central Division responded to a radio call of a homeless man on the roof of the Four Corners Market on San Pedro Street, along downtown’s skid row. The officers tried to talk to Ocana, but he ignored them, the report said. Ocana then climbed from the roof to the top of a billboard using a ladder.
Ocana straddled the top of the billboard and began to rock it back and forth. Officers at the scene said he appeared to be under the influence of narcotics or mentally ill, the report said.
Firefighters placed two air cushions, one on the rooftop of a building next to the market and another in the market’s parking lot.
When the Central officers were unable to get Ocana down, officials requested SWAT come to the scene.
Believing Ocana posed a threat to himself while atop the billboard, SWAT supervisors devised a plan to prevent Ocana from climbing back up the billboard should he come down to the rooftop. By then, officers said, they had learned Ocana had a history of fighting with police.
Officers planned to grab the suspect but were prepared to use “less-lethal” force, such as a Taser, the chief said in his report.
About 11:30 p.m., an officer placed a cigarette at the bottom of the billboard’s ladder and backed away, hoping to lure Ocana down. Ocana hesitantly climbed down to the rooftop and grabbed the cigarette, according to the report.
Another officer then took out a lighter, hoping to coax Ocana further away from the edge of the roof. But the man dug into his shorts pocket and pulled out one of his own. As Ocana smoked the cigarette, Scallon unholstered his Taser and hid it behind his leg, police records state.
Suddenly, Ocana turned and grabbed onto the ladder leading up the billboard. Scallon fired the Taser, causing Ocana to fall.
Coroner’s officials determined that he died of blunt force head trauma, with “massive skull fractures,” and deemed the death accidental. They also found cocaine in his system.
Although Beck ordered two lieutenants and a sergeant to undergo more training after the incident, the chief primarily faulted Scallon for how he used the Taser. The chief said Scallon deviated from the tactical plan by using the Taser before officers had the chance to grab Ocana and did not provide adequate warning that he was going to deploy the device.
Scallon told investigators that he thought there was only a “small window of opportunity” to use the Taser and take Ocana into custody. He said he thought Ocana would fall onto the roof, the chief’s report states.
The Taser was used despite the LAPD’s warning to officers against generally using the device against someone who is “in danger of falling which would likely result in death or serious bodily injury,” according to the report.
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