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Police Commission rules LAPD officer justified in fatally shooting 14-year-old in Boyle Heights

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- TUESDAY, JULY 25, 2017: A tearful Teresa Dominguez, mother of Jesse Romero, f
A tearful Teresa Dominguez, mother of Jesse Romero, center, speaks at the Los Angeles Police Commission meeting.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Police Commission ruled Tuesday that officers were justified in firing their guns in two separate shootings, including a controversial encounter in Boyle Heights that left a 14-year-old boy dead.

In a 3-1 vote, the civilian panel determined that last summer’s shooting of Jesse Romero fell within the Los Angeles Police Department’s rules for using deadly force. The board, however, unanimously faulted one officer’s tactics leading up to the shooting.

The commissioners were also unanimous in deciding that another officer was justified in shooting 18-year-old Kenney Watkins in South L.A.

The decisions followed a meeting that was tense at times, as activists who packed the room blasted the LAPD and urged commissioners to fault the officers who fired their guns. They referenced other shootings by police, particularly those of young African Americans and Latinos.

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“We have got to stop killing black and brown youth,” activist Paula Minor said.

The board deliberated behind closed doors for about an hour and a half before announcing its findings. Later, Jesse’s mother frowned as she stood in the lobby of the LAPD’s downtown headquarters.

”I don’t have the words,” Teresa Dominguez said softly in Spanish.

She wore a T-shirt with her son’s picture. “Justicia para Jesse Romero,” it read.

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The 14-year-old’s killing roiled the Eastside neighborhood where he lived, as conflicting accounts of the moments leading up to the deadly shooting spread.

Central to the dispute was whether Jesse fired a revolver at police as they chased him, or the gun went off as he tossed the weapon away. Investigators found the gun behind a wrought iron fence — a detail long asserted by those critical of the shooting that was confirmed in an LAPD report made public Tuesday.

In a statement, the LAPD officers’ union said it sympathized with the families of those killed. However, the union said, Romero and Watkins “made horrible decisions, with tragic outcomes.”

“Anytime a suspect shoots or points a gun at a police officer, the officer must act to protect themselves and the public,” the union said. “No matter the age, race or gender of a suspect firing a gun at a police officer, the bullets do the same amount of damage.”

Jesse was among a group of boys tagging graffiti behind an apartment complex on North Chicago Street on Aug. 9, according to a report LAPD Chief Charlie Beck submitted to the commission. Two officers arrived to investigate.

The boys bolted — Jesse took off down Cesar Chavez Avenue, the report said, grabbing his waistband as he ran. The officers shouted at him to stop, the report said, but he ignored them.

The officers chased after Jesse, who turned onto Breed Street. As they approached the corner, the report said, they heard a gunshot.

”I think it’s the suspect shooting at us,” one officer later told investigators.

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One officer saw Jesse crouched on the sidewalk, his right arm extended toward them, the report said. Thinking the boy was going to shoot, Officer Eden Medina fired his own gun twice, hitting the teenager.

Medina’s name, along with Jesse’s, was redacted from the public version of Beck’s report. The LAPD previously identified him as the only officer who fired his gun.

But a woman who said she saw the shooting disputed the police account, telling The Times that as Jesse ran, she saw him pull a gun from his basketball shorts and throw it toward a fence. The gun hit the fence and fell onto the ground, she said, and she heard the weapon fire.

The LAPD previously said another witness saw Jesse fire a handgun toward the officers.

Jesse died on the sidewalk, two weeks shy of his 15th birthday.

It was the second time in 12 days that Medina, the LAPD officer, had fatally shot someone. He is currently on administrative leave, a department spokeswoman said.

Although both Medina and his partner wore body cameras that recorded the initial contact with the boy and the chase, they didn’t capture the shooting, Beck’s report said. The footage has not been made public.

Jesse’s parents filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, alleging that their son was unarmed when he was shot and that Medina used force that was “excessive and unreasonable under the circumstances.”

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Estela Rodriguez, mother of Edwin Rodriguez, 24, who was shot by LA County Sheriff deputies, speaks
Estela Rodriguez, mother of Edwin Rodriguez, 24, who was shot by LA County Sheriff deputies, speaks at Los Angeles Police Commission meeting.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Watkins was killed a week later.

A motorcycle officer was working near Figueroa Street and Century Boulevard on Aug. 16 when he spotted a car with no front license plate and dark tinted windows, according to another report from Beck. Officer Evan Urias was planning to stop the car for those violations, the report said, when Watkins, a passenger, got out and started walking away.

Urias saw Watkins with his hands in his waistband and thought he might be hiding something, the report said. The officer trailed him, then told him to stop and show his hands.

The 18-year-old started running down Century Boulevard, the report said. Urias followed, still on the motorcycle.

The officer saw Watkins holding a gun in his left hand and a few moments later, another gun in his right, the report said. The officer told investigators Watkins then turned toward him, prompting him to shoot.

One witness told The Times he saw Watkins duck into a small, dead-end driveway, then turn back toward the street as if to keep running. Then, the man said, he heard gunshots as the officer jumped off the motorcycle and Watkins fell.

Prescious Sasser cries as she hugs a friend at a vigil for her 18-year-old son, Kenney Watkins, afte
Prescious Sasser cries as she hugs a friend at a vigil for her 18-year-old son, Kenney Watkins, after he was fatally shot by police in South L.A.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Watkins died in the driveway, shot once in the back, according to an autopsy report. Police said they found two guns at the scene.

Watkins’ mother has also sued the city, alleging Urias used “deadly, excessive, unnecessary and unlawful” force.

One of the family’s attorneys criticized the commission’s decision, saying the officer shouldn’t have shot Watkins even if he was armed. The LAPD, attorney Michael Curls said, was protecting one of their own.

“The issue is not whether the individual had guns or not,” Curls said. “The issue is that at all times, Kenney Watkins was running, trying to flee.”

Prosecutors are still reviewing the shooting for any criminal charges, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said. The LAPD had not yet presented a case regarding Jesse’s shooting, she added.

Protesters interrupt a Los Angeles Police Commission meeting.
Protesters interrupt a Los Angeles Police Commission meeting.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Times staff writer Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.

kate.mather@latimes.com

@katemather

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UPDATES:

8:05 p.m.: This article was updated with details from LAPD reports, comments from the police union and from an attorney for the Watkins family.

1:15 p.m.: This article was updated with the rulings on both shootings as well as reaction from Jesse Romero’s mother.

12:20 p.m.: This article was updated with details from Tuesday’s meeting, including comments from activists, the Police Commission president and Jesse Romero’s mother.

This article was originally published at 5 a.m.


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