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Inglewood to pay $4.6 million to unarmed man shot by police officer

Juan Jose Palma
Juan Jose Palma, 46, still struggles to speak four years after he was shot in the head by an Inglewood police officer during a traffic stop.
(Gina Ferrazi / Los Angeles Times)

The Ford Explorer crawled to a stop about 1:30 a.m. in Inglewood as a police cruiser rolled closely behind, its lights washing over 103rd street.

An officer jumped out of the cruiser, advancing quickly with his arms extended, gun drawn, while his partner moved along the passenger side of the Explorer. Seconds later, one of the officers fired a single shot into the car. The bullet struck the driver, Juan Jose Palma, directly in the head, piercing his left temple.

The incident, captured from a distance by a security camera at a nearby auto repair shop, lasted less than 15 seconds, but what led the officer to open fire has been the subject of heated dispute for more than four years.

The officer, Landon Poirier, told investigators that Palma ignored repeated commands to show his hands, reached behind him in the car and raised a “long black and silver object.” Fearing Palma was arming himself with a shotgun, Poirier opened fire, according to a memo issued by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

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But Palma and his attorney have argued the 46-year-old car wash employee posed no threat to Poirier or anyone else. In an interview, Palma said he was simply reaching for his license and registration. No weapon was found in Palma’s SUV, though prosecutors said there was a baseball bat in the backseat.

A legal battle over the October 2012 shooting that left Palma with lasting brain injuries came to a close last month, when the city of Inglewood agreed to pay him $4.6 million to settle an excessive-force lawsuit.

Palma’s attorney, R. Samuel Paz, said the city has a history of problems with the way officers use deadly force, and he accused the Police Department of failing to thoroughly investigate shootings by officers. He said the officers were not wearing body cameras and their cruiser was not equipped with a dashboard camera on the night of the shooting.

Jasmyne Cannick, a city spokeswoman, said Inglewood Mayor James Butts and the Police Department would not comment on the settlement. She did not answer a number of questions about the shooting and the department, including whether Poirier was disciplined and whether the agency had equipped officers with body cameras or its cruisers with dashboard cameras.

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An employee at the law offices of George Mallory, the attorney who represented Inglewood in Palma’s lawsuit, referred all questions back to the city. Poirier, who has been with the department since December 2008, could not be reached for comment.

The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute Poirier in connection with the shooting, concluding that the officer “acted to end what he perceived to be an imminent deadly threat.”

Prosecutors noted that Palma drove slowly for several blocks after police attempted to pull him over for running a stop sign about 1:30 a.m. on the night of the shooting. Once he stopped, the district attorney’s 2013 memo said, Palma did not comply with orders in English and Spanish to show his hands. Poirier told investigators he believed that someone driving in a similar manner had shot an Inglewood police officer in the same neighborhood a week earlier, prosecutors said.

Sitting in his lawyer’s office on a recent afternoon, Palma teared up as he tried to recount the night that left a curved, indented scar along his left temple. He said he can’t remember the gunshot, one of several blank spaces in his memory these days. Palma was unable to speak when he woke up in a hospital bed after the shooting and needed months of occupational therapy in order to form coherent sentences.

Four years later, Palma still struggles to speak at times. The words form in his brain, but never seem to make it off his tongue, he said. When a reporter asked Palma how old he was during an interview last month, the father of two frowned, laughed, then turned to his wife for help before arriving at an answer.

“I used to speak English perfectly,” said Palma, who was born in Mexico. “When I try to speak, sometimes I can’t remember the words.”

Law enforcement experts said police were legally justified in shooting Palma if they thought he was reaching for a weapon. But the experts questioned the officers’ decision to approach the vehicle on their own without calling for help if they believed he was driving in a similar fashion to someone who had shot a police officer in the same area a week earlier.

Nevertheless, Rick Wyant, a forensic scientist who has testified in more than 100 use-of-force cases and also serves as a reserve sheriff’s deputy in Washington, said he was surprised by the size of the settlement, given the officers’ description of Palma failing to obey their commands and the baseball bat inside the vehicle.

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After reviewing the surveillance video and legal documents in the case for The Times, Wyant said he believed the shooting was “by the book.”

“There’s nothing that gives me pause and goes ‘oh, no,’” Wyant said.

But Sid Heal, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s commander and chairman of strategy development for the National Tactical Officers Assn., described the shooting as “lawful but awful.” 

“Their tactics were bad. I understand why they did what they did, I just don’t think that was the only option,” Heal said. “If I was suspicious, I would have called backup right from the beginning.”

Heal said the size of the settlement indicated the city knew it would lose in court. The average payout for a wrongful-death suit against a police officer in the U.S. is around $2 million, Heal said.

Heal suggested that the shooting may have been accidental.

“I started wondering right off the bat, was this an accidental discharge? Was he so scared … that the round just went off?” Heal asked. “It happens more often than people think.”

Paz said he believes Poirier opened fire by accident and then concocted the account about Palma reaching for a weapon.

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In court records, Paz accused the department of failing to properly investigate its officers when they use lethal force. He cited a deposition in the case by Capt. Marie DiBernardo, who oversees the department’s shooting review board. DiBernardo said in the deposition that her board’s job is to critique officers who use deadly force and give advice on how to improve, if necessary, according to a transcript reviewed by The Times.

“I would assume that they’re going to come to the board hearing and tell the truth. So that is not an issue for me,” she said in the deposition.

Paz said the statement is indicative of Inglewood’s failure to properly scrutinize officers when they use force against suspects.

“They have a systemic problem. It is pretty straightforward. The investigation was never to investigate the officer. The investigation was only to investigate if Mr. Palma had committed a crime,” Paz said.

DiBernardo’s comments in the deposition gave experts considerable pause.

“That is interesting to say the least,” Wyant said. “That particular function is to look at all the facts, and don’t consider anyone is telling the truth, unless it’s supported by objective reasoning.”

The Inglewood Police Department has previously drawn criticism over its use of force, particularly against unarmed people. 

A 2008 Times investigation found five of the 11 people fatally shot by Inglewood officers from 2003 to 2008 were unarmed, while a pair of officers used a Taser on unarmed suspects four times in a five-week period. At one point, the then-vice president of the city police union, which is tasked with advocating for officers accused of misconduct, was assigned as a homicide detective to investigate officer-involved shootings.

The U.S. Department of Justice later found significant flaws in the way Inglewood police oversaw use-of-force incidents and called for numerous changes in the way the department trained and investigated its officers.

Palma said the shooting obliterated his once rock-solid faith in police officers. He doesn’t drive anymore, for fear he might have to interact with someone else carrying a badge and gun.

“When I see how they work sometimes,” he said haltingly, “I just think, I hope, I hope, they get much better.”

james.queally@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT for crime and police news in California.

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