In his short time as a Los Angeles police officer, Joseph Cruz earned a reputation as a hard-charging cop. He opted to work nights in a “very aggressive unit” in Hollywood, using force on suspects when the circumstances called for it, court records show. A supervisor once testified that he wished he had 40 officers just like Cruz.
The praise, however, soon turned to suspicion and later disbelief. In 2007, a witness said he saw the 25-year-old Cruz pistol-whip a suspect, leaving a bloody gash on the man’s head. Cruz claimed the man caused the injury himself by lifting his head into the butt of the gun. Ultimately, Cruz was fired for dishonesty after he gave shifting accounts of another detainee’s escape from his custody.
When Cruz went to court to try to get his job back, city lawyers told a judge the former officer’s “actions have damaged beyond repair his credibility.”
So it is a strange scene playing out this week in a federal courtroom in Los Angeles, where the LAPD and the same city attorney’s office that essentially denounced Cruz as a liar are now vouching for his credibility in a lawsuit alleging that he wrongly killed a man. They say Cruz’s actions in a 2008 shooting were justified, although they have reached that conclusion largely on the word of a man they say they don’t trust.
The awkward arrangement highlights the complications and inconsistencies that can arise for the LAPD and the city attorney’s office. The Police Department fires, suspends, or otherwise disciplines hundreds of officers for misconduct each year, while at the same time working with city lawyers to defend some of the same officers in civil lawsuits alleging wrongdoing.
“This is one of the messes that classically gets left behind when an officer is found to be corrupt,” said USC law professor Rebecca Lonergan, a former federal prosecutor.
The shooting at the center of the current lawsuit occurred in the darkness of a March morning in 2008. A few minutes before 4 a.m., Cruz and his partner were driving down Curson Avenue south of Sunset Boulevard when Cruz spotted Mohammed Usman Chaudhry lying behind some bushes in the shadows of an apartment building.
Chaudhry was a 21-year-old autistic man who sometimes wandered away from his parent’s home in favor of a transient existence on the streets in Hollywood. Cruz struck up a conversation with Chaudhry, who acted calmly and did not seem to pose a threat, police and court records show. It does not appear that Chaudhry’s behavior gave the officers an indication of his mental disorder. Cruz instructed his partner to return to the patrol car to run Chaudhry’s name through a computer database for any outstanding warrants. From where the vehicle was parked, his partner could not see Cruz and Chaudhry clearly, court and police records show.
According to Cruz’s account of the shooting contained in court and police records, Chaudhry suddenly reached into the front pocket of his sweatshirt, pulled out a knife with a nearly 4-inch blade and lunged at him. Cruz drew his gun and fired three shots in quick succession, and, with Chaudhry still on his feet, fired a fourth shot a second or two later. His partner saw Cruz fire only the fourth shot, and there were no other witnesses.
Three of the bullets struck Chaudhry in the chest area, killing him. Cruz was treated for a small cut on his hand that he said he suffered when he raised his arm to block Chaudhry’s attempt to stab him. A knife was recovered at the scene.
The Los Angeles Police Commission, a civilian board that oversees the LAPD and reviews all serious use-of-force cases, concluded that Cruz’s decision to use deadly force was justified. The board criticized Cruz and his partner for failing to search Chaudhry for weapons and for ignoring a basic tactical rule that requires one officer to always keep watch over his partner during a stop.
Chaudhry’s parents filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against Cruz and the LAPD, alleging that their son’s civil rights were violated in the shooting.
In his opening statement to the jury Tuesday, a lawyer for the family made it clear he would try to cast doubt on Cruz’s trustworthiness and his account of the incident, in part by driving home the fact that the LAPD and city lawyers concluded he was not credible.
“Today’s case is about truth,” attorney Olu Orange said. “And the evidence will show that Joseph Cruz was fired from his position as an LAPD officer … that it was the city of Los Angeles that fired him … and the reason he was fired was that he was dishonest, that he would not tell the truth during an official investigation.”
The city has a strong interest in defending Cruz in court. If the jury awards the Chaudhry family monetary damages, it is likely — although not certain — that the city will be responsible for the cost since Cruz killed Chaudhry in the line of duty.
The city is paying Peter Ferguson, a private attorney, to defend Cruz in the case. Craig Miller, a deputy city attorney who specializes in defending LAPD officers, is also at the defense table. And an LAPD detective from the department’s Risk Management Section has served as Miller’s investigator on the case, helping him to build the case that Cruz’s account of the shooting is truthful.
Lawyers for the Chaudhry family are expected to focus, in part, on DNA evidence taken from the knife. Tests conducted for the LAPD found only one person’s DNA on the knife’s handle and blade, court records show. And Chaudhry’s DNA, the tests concluded, did not match the DNA on the knife.
Representatives from the LAPD and city attorney’s office refused requests for comment. Ferguson also declined to comment or let Cruz speak for this article.
The shooting came in the wake of two other incidents that put Cruz under scrutiny and eventually resulted in his being fired.
In April 2007, the pistol-whipping incident occurred, according to police records. Despite Cruz’s explanation that the wound had been accidentally caused by the suspect, the Police Commission concluded that the witness’ account was more credible and determined that Cruz had been unjustified in making the head strike. It does not appear that finding led the LAPD to open an investigation into whether Cruz had been dishonest with investigators.
Several months later, Cruz and a partner were sent to pick up a girl who had run away from a juvenile shelter, according to court records. On the drive back to the LAPD’s Hollywood area station, the girl escaped from the patrol car and fled.
During the investigation into the incident, Cruz offered the explanation that the girl, who was handcuffed, had thrown herself head-first out the window while the car was moving. And, in three interviews with investigators, he gave a changing account of what he did in the moments after she fled. At first, he said he had tried to contact a supervisor over his department radio. When investigators told Cruz there was no record of any radio transmission, he said he recalled that he had instead used his mobile phone to contact the station.
Department officials accused Cruz of oversights that led to the girl’s escape and of making false statements — a charge he denied. He went before a three-person disciplinary board, which included two LAPD captains. The two captains rejected Cruz’s explanations, found him guilty of dishonesty and recommended that he be fired.
“There are too many events that do not make sense, as explained by Officer Cruz, to give this board any confidence in his statement,” the captains concluded in their decision. Cruz, they wrote, had offered up a “calculated set of false facts” that amounted to a “concocted story.”