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L.A. Police Commission clears sergeants in death of Omar Abrego

L.A. Police Commission clears sergeants in death of Omar Abrego
Lawrencia Colding, center, protests at 65th Street and Broadway in South Los Angeles on Jan. 3 over the death of Omar Abrego, who died hours after being arrested by police last year. (Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Police Commission ruled Tuesday that two LAPD gang sergeants acted within department policy last year during a violent arrest of a South L.A. man who died the next day.

Commissioners unanimously sided with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who recommended the two sergeants and four officers who responded as backup be cleared in the Aug. 2 encounter with Omar Abrego.

The decision caps a nearly yearlong review of Abrego's death, which drew attention from people protesting killings by police. Abrego died about a week before Ezell Ford, a mentally ill black man, was fatally shot by officers just a few blocks from where Abrego was taken into custody.

Coroner's officials determined Abrego, 37, died from the effects of cocaine but listed the "physical and emotional duress" caused by the altercation as a contributing factor.

Abrego's family is suing the LAPD in federal court, alleging the sergeants used "unreasonable and unlawful force." An attorney representing the family declined to comment Tuesday on the Police Commission's decision.

A lawyer representing the sergeants — Jeff Mares and Robert Calderon, both 20-plus-year veterans — said the ruling showed "sometimes the system works like it should."

"It's unfortunate that anyone dies, especially in circumstances like this," attorney Gary Fullerton said. "But I don't think what the two sergeants did was a real contribution to the reason why he actually died."

According to a redacted copy of Beck's recommendations obtained by The Times, the sergeants were driving on Broadway when someone flagged them down and told them about a suspicious white vehicle in an alley. The sergeants noticed a white van run a stop sign and nearly hit a pedestrian, according to the report.

The sergeants followed the van, which they told investigators was being driven erratically, and pulled up next to it when it came to a stop on South Main Street, the report said. Abrego then jumped out of the van's back doors, the report said.

The sergeants told Abrego to get down on the ground, the report said, but he ran.

One of the sergeants followed Abrego, who stopped and turned toward the sergeant, the report said. The sergeant then "grabbed Abrego in a bear hug."

Abrego "physically resisted and was able to break free," then punched the sergeant in the chest, according to the report. The sergeant punched Abrego three times in the face and used "various additional force" as the altercation continued.

The other sergeant grabbed Abrego's arm and the two took him to the ground as he "continued to be combative and resist," the report said. The sergeants, who police say were injured during the altercation, called for backup.

The sergeants and backup officers were able to handcuff Abrego and hobble his legs, the report said. The sergeants told investigators they believed Abrego was under the influence of drugs because he was sweaty, wide-eyed and "seemed agitated."

Paramedics treated Abrego at the scene, then took him to an Inglewood hospital where he was admitted for renal failure and a toxic breakdown of muscle tissue, according to his autopsy report. Abrego was also treated for a severe concussion, cuts, bruises and "cocaine toxicity."

He died the next morning.

Follow @katemather for more LAPD news.

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