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$4-million jury verdict overturned for officers who fatally shot autistic man

$4-million jury verdict overturned for officers who fatally shot autistic man
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck testified at the trial for two officers who shot an unarmed autistic man in 2010. (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

A California appeals court has overturned a nearly $4-million jury verdict for two Los Angeles police officers placed on desk duty for five years after fatally shooting an unarmed, autistic black man in 2010.

The three-judge panel last week tossed out a 2015 Los Angeles County Superior Court jury decision in favor of Officers Allan Corrales and George Diego, saying they failed to prove the discrimination to support the jury verdict. Corrales had been awarded more than $2 million and Diego $1.9 million. The Los Angeles City Attorney appealed that verdict.

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During the jury trial, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said the officers, both Latino, were given desk jobs after the fatal shooting of Steve Washington in 2010 because they were unfit to work in the field and not because of their race.

The officers, he said, made serious tactical errors during their encounter with Washington. But Beck said the shooting was justified because they feared for their lives.

The civilian commission that oversees the LAPD however, found that the officers violated the department's use-of-force policy and that the shooting was unreasonable. The officers subsequently sued when they were kept from returning to patrol — a move that would deny them opportunities to promote.

The Court of Appeal wrote, "While the evidence that the officers produced at trial might have been sufficient to support the theory of discrimination that they presented, that theory was legally flawed."

The court noted that the officers claimed that they suffered disparate treatment because they are Latino and the victim was African American. They relied on evidence of another shooting involving a white officer and a Latino victim where the officer was returned to patrol quickly.

The court of appeal found that the jurors considered "whether the officers were treated differently, not simply because of their race, but because of the race of their victim." That theory, the panel wrote,does not support the discrimination claim the officers brought.

During the trial, a white officer testified that he had shot an unarmed Latino and was allowed to return to field work after six weeks.

Following the jury verdict, Gregory W. Smith, the attorney for the officers, said it shows there are much larger issues that need to be addressed: Officers need more training on how to handle people with mental illness, and those suffering from mental illness need more protection and support.

In the suit, which was filed in 2012, the officers alleged they repeatedly faced discrimination and retaliation within the department because they are Latino and the slain man, Washington, 27, was black. Corrales and Diego said they made requests to return to the field but were denied, and also passed over for promotions and transfers.

Washington was unarmed and not involved in criminal activity when he was shot and killed in March 2010 in Koreatown.

The officers, who worked in an anti-gang unit, drove up slowly behind Washington as he walked alone on the sidewalk just after midnight.

Corrales told investigators that Washington appeared to reach for his waistband for what the officer believed was a weapon, according to the department's internal review.

Corrales, who was in the passenger seat, fired once, striking Washington in the head. Diego got out of the vehicle, fired and missed, the review said.

No weapon was found, but authorities said the officers feared for their lives because Washington did not respond to commands.

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Smith said a video of the shooting showed Washington turning violently at the officers.

After the shooting, Washington's relatives and the American Civil Liberties Union called on the LAPD for more information to justify the shooting.

The slain man's mother received $950,000 as part of a settlement in 2012 after she filed a claim against the city.

Twitter: @lacrimes

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