When Ezell Ford’s mother learned Tuesday afternoon that L.A. police commissioners had faulted one of the officers who fatally shot her son, her first reaction, she said, was: “Hallelujah!”
Speaking to reporters at South L.A.'s First AME Church hours later, Tritobia Ford said although she was “a little disappointed” that the Police Commission had cleared the other officer who shot her 25-year-old son, she was ultimately pleased with the board’s decision.
The ruling, she said, “strongly, on the record, stated that what happened to Ezell was wrong.”
Ford had harsher words for LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, saying she doubted the chief would impose anything more than a “slap on the wrist” for the officers because the chief had found their actions justified. She also called on Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to file criminal charges and let a jury decide the officers’ fate.
“We have not heard from you,” Ford said, addressing Lacey. “We need to hear from you. The investigation is over.... You need to step up.”
Ford said she had met with Mayor Eric Garcetti earlier in the day. The two prayed together, she said.
“Even though it was 10 months late, I thank him,” she said.
Ford’s comments came just hours after she made an emotional plea to the Police Commission, asking the board to hold the officers accountable for her son’s death. An often-angry crowd that packed the commission’s meeting fell silent as Ford spoke.
“He was my baby,” she said of her son.
The Police Commission issued a mixed ruling Tuesday in last summer’s killing of Ezell Ford, a mentally ill black man who was shot and killed by officers near his family’s South L.A. home. Commissioners found that one officer was wrong to use deadly force but cleared the other in the fatal shooting.
The board also faulted both officers for their decisions to draw their weapons at different points during the confrontation with Ezell Ford and disapproved of the tactics used by one of the officers.
With their vote, the commission rejected a recommendation by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who believed both officers were right to open fire and had urged commissioners to clear both of any wrongdoing.
Like Beck, the commission’s inspector general also recommended that the panel find that the shooting was justified because of evidence pointing to a struggle between one of the officers and Ford over the officer’s gun.
Beck said in a statement issued late Tuesday evening: “I respect the process and the decision made in this matter.”
At a news conference Tuesday night, Garcetti said that the city’s police oversight system had functioned well in Ford’s case and that he had confidence that Beck “will enact appropriate discipline based on what the commission has rendered.” He declined to offer any opinions on what punishment the officers should face, saying the decision rested with the chief.
The mayor also addressed recent criticism that he had been too silent in the matter, saying that he had not wanted to exert inappropriate influence over the process for reviewing police officers’ use of force.
“The people of Los Angeles set up a system that was supposed to stand on its own two feet,” Garcetti said. Whatever one thinks of the commission’s decision, he added, “it’s pretty difficult to dispute that it was not one that was tainted by politics.”
Craig Lally, president of the union that represents rank and file officers, said he was baffled by the commission’s decision. He noted that reports by Beck and the inspector general, Alex Bustamante, both mentioned that investigators found forensic evidence indicating Ford grabbed Wampler’s gun.
“I don’t understand what the officer’s supposed to do instead,” Lally said. “Are you supposed to get up and run? Is he supposed to just lay on his back and get shot? Give up? We’re not trained to give up.”
Lally said he feared the commission’s ruling would have a chilling effect on the officers who patrol the city’s streets. The message sent, he said, was that any potential mistake in tactics could result in an entire incident being found out of policy.
“If you do proactive police work and something goes south, guess what?” Lally said. “The Police Commission is not going to stand by you.”
As in all police shootings, the commission judged the two officers, Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas, on three issues: the officers’ use of deadly force, their decision to draw their weapons and the tactics they used throughout the encounter.
While the commission identified the officers only by their ranks in announcing its decision, LAPD records show that it was Wampler, a 13-year veteran of the force, who was judged harshly. The commission found he was unjustified to open fire on Ford in the Aug. 11 shooting, wrong to draw his weapon and had used unacceptable tactics.
Villegas, Wampler’s partner that night in an anti-gang unit, was found far less culpable. The panel disapproved only of his initial decision to draw his weapon early on in the confrontation, but said he ultimately was right to fire his weapon.
Attorney Gary Fullerton, whose firm is representing the two officers, said that he was pleased one was cleared but that the commission went against the recommendations of its inspector general, the police chief and the LAPD’s use of force board.
Fullerton defended the officers, saying that the evidence in the case showed they acted reasonably, and that he believed the commission acted as a result of public pressure.
It now falls to Beck, who alone is authorized to discipline officers, to decide what punishment, if any, to impose.