When a Los Angeles police officer shot an unarmed man in the head last year along busy Los Feliz Boulevard, it immediately sparked questions about whether the use of force was justified.
The man had a gray towel around his hand, which his family said he typically carried when he walked through the neighborhood. A gruesome video taken after the shooting showed Walter William DeLeon, a father of two, bleeding from the head alongside the road.
“That’s pretty bad,” a man says on the recording.
But on Tuesday, the Police Commission unanimously determined that Officer Cairo Palacios was justified in shooting DeLeon, deciding he reasonably believed the 48-year-old held a gun under the towel.
A report made public after the commission’s finding revealed new details about the June 19 shooting. LAPD investigators found several witnesses who also thought DeLeon was pointing a gun at police, the report said. Minutes before he was shot, DeLeon told a witness to call 911 and report to the operator that he was carrying a gun, according to the document.
The decisions by the oversight board have drawn more attention in recent months amid increased national scrutiny of how and when police officers use force.
DeLeon, who was one of 36 people shot by on-duty officers last year, suffered catastrophic injuries, losing part of his brain, one of his eyes and the ability to walk, according to a lawsuit filed this month. The lawsuit disputes the LAPD’s account, saying DeLeon was a “substantial distance from the officers and posed no threat” when he was shot.
His attorney blasted the commission’s decision, saying his office had interviewed over two dozen witnesses whose accounts of the shooting differ from what the LAPD said. Attorney Mark Geragos rejected the idea that DeLeon told a witness to call 911, saying there was “no basis for that.”
“We look forward to getting into a courtroom and showing exactly how not only this was not in policy, but also that criminal charges should have been brought,” he said. “There was absolutely no justification for the use of deadly force. None. He didn’t have a gun.”
A spokesman for the district attorney’s office — which will decide whether to file criminal charges in connection with the shooting — said Tuesday that the LAPD had not yet presented its investigation to prosecutors.
According to the report that LAPD Chief Charlie Beck submitted to the commission, a witness called 911 a few minutes before officers saw DeLeon walking toward their patrol car, which was stopped in traffic along Los Feliz Boulevard.
The caller told a California Highway Patrol dispatcher that a man, later identified as DeLeon, “just walked by me and said, ‘Call 911. Let them know I’m walking down the street and I have a gun in my hand,’ ” the report said.
The officers heard a “loud moan or scream” from their patrol car — the windows were rolled down — but initially didn’t give the noise much attention, the report said. When they heard it again, the report said, they told investigators they looked over and saw DeLeon walking on a nearby sidewalk.
DeLeon then turned toward the patrol car, the report said. One of his hands was covered in a towel. Both of his arms were bent at a 90-degree angle, the report said, pointing at the officers.
“I instantly thought, ‘He’s pointing a gun at somebody,’ ” one witness recalled.
“I saw him and my first thought was, ‘This man has a gun and he’s going to shoot someone,’ ” another witness told investigators. “So I put my car in park and got down as low as I could.”
One witness said DeLeon yelled, “Cops, cops, cops,” before he approached police.
The officers left their car and drew their guns. One officer said he saw “something metallic” in DeLeon’s hands and ordered him to “drop the weapon,” the report said.
“I remember thinking to myself … ‘I’m going to get hit soon,’ ” Palacios said, according to the report. “’I’m going to get shot. I’m going to die here.’ ”
Palacios told investigators he opened fire as DeLeon continued to point his towel-covered hand at police. When the officers approached DeLeon, one yanked the towel from his hand, the report said. When it hit the ground and opened up, the officer’s partner told investigators, “there was nothing in there.”
But, Beck and the police commissioners concluded, “based on the totality of the circumstances,” Palacios reasonably believed “DeLeon’s actions presented an imminent threat.”
The names of the officers, as well as the witnesses, were redacted from the copy of Beck’s report that was made public Tuesday, but the LAPD previously identified Palacios as the officer who shot DeLeon.
Palacios graduated from the LAPD’s academy in 2006 and worked as a sworn officer in the city’s General Services Department, which patrolled parks, libraries and other city-owned properties. That department merged with the LAPD in 2013.
An attorney representing the officer said the shooting was “unfortunate” but that Palacios was reacting to DeLeon’s actions. Attorney Gary Fullerton said the case showed that investigations into shootings can reveal new details that can affect how they are viewed.
“People get a tidbit of information and jump at it,” he said. “Until we know everything, it’s not fair to anybody — not just the officers, but the victim, the suspect, the public at large. You need a fair and thorough investigation.”
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