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LAPD officer found not guilty of assaulting man with baton

Jonathan Lai, right, with his attorney Ira Salzman during hearing January 21, 2015, at a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. Lai was found not guilty on Monday of two assault charges.

Jonathan Lai, right, with his attorney Ira Salzman during hearing January 21, 2015, at a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. Lai was found not guilty on Monday of two assault charges.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A Los Angeles police officer has been found not guilty of charges that he used excessive force when he repeatedly struck a man with a baton while detaining him near Staples Center in 2012.

After deliberating for about two hours, a downtown Los Angeles jury on Monday acquitted Jonathan Lai of one felony count of assault by a police officer and another felony count of assault with a deadly weapon, according to his defense attorney, Ira Salzman.

“The jurors had to agree that my client was objectively reasonable,” Salzman said.

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Lai, 32, was accused of striking the man April 15, 2012, outside a restaurant near Staples Center. Part of the incident was captured by a security camera.

Lai and his partner had approached the man to warn him about drinking alcohol in public, but the man became combative and moved his hands in and out of his pocket, Salzman said. The officers had the man kneel down to be handcuffed, but he jumped up and assumed a fighting stance, prompting Lai to resort to his baton, Salzman said.

But the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office contended that the video “allegedly shows Lai repeatedly using his police baton to strike the man who was on his knees with his hands on his head,” according to a statement released in 2014.

The LAPD’s investigators uncovered the video while reviewing the use of force by Lai, then an officer in the Central Division. The Police Department later referred the case to the district attorney’s office.

Reached after the verdict was announced, Lai’s attorney said that the video did not show the full circumstances of the arrest or the initial stop of the man, which he said was aligned with department policy.

After Lai used his baton to strike the man for about 15 seconds, his partner used a Taser to subdue the man.

“If you can use the Taser, you can use the baton,” Salzman said, adding that the incident was the first time Lai had used his baton.

When writing his initial police report, Lai did not review the video and had overestimated the number of blows he used against the man.

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“Typically officers acting guilty will underestimate,” Salzman said. “He knew there was a video camera there. He did nothing to act in any deceitful way.”

The officer’s attorney said his client did not know if the man he was detaining had a weapon. He said it was unfair to judge Lai from the vantage point of the security video.

Neither the prosecutor who handled the case, Deputy Dist. Atty. Gretchen Ford, nor a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office responded to requests for comment.

Lai was relieved of duty and placed on unpaid leave, Salzman said. In January, he’s scheduled to go before the department’s Board of Rights, which will determine if any misconduct occurred and whether Lai should face any penalties.

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For breaking news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

Times staff writer Kate Mather contributed to this report.


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