Investigating Their Own

Times Staff Writers

Officer Jeff Nolte was leading a drug raid on a motel in Gardena when a suspected cocaine dealer pointed a shotgun at him. Nolte fired two shots “in immediate defense of his life,” hitting the suspect, Leonard Robinson, in the hands and disarming him.

At least that was the story told by the Los Angeles Police Department. Seeing no reason to doubt it, the Police Commission ruled the shooting “in policy.” Nolte was officially in the clear.

Four years later, Robinson’s civil rights lawsuit went to trial, and a very different picture emerged.


Evidence not seen by the commission showed that Robinson had his hands in the air when Nolte opened fire. Robinson wasn’t aiming a weapon at the officer, the jury found. He was trying to surrender. Robinson collected $2 million in damages this year.

“I do not believe that any officer could reasonably have believed that this shooting was justified,” said U.S. District Court Judge Nora Manella, who presided at the trial.

It was not the first time the Police Commission had been led astray by the department it supervises. Time and again, the LAPD has given its civilian overseers an incomplete, often distorted picture of police shootings, a Times investigation found.

The five-member commission — made up of lawyers, business people and civic leaders appointed by the mayor — is supposed to serve as the public’s sentinel at police headquarters.

Scrutinizing shootings is one of its most important responsibilities, a way to ensure that police who use excessive force do not go undetected or unpunished.

Yet as a watchdog, the commission operates with a serious handicap: It has frequently been kept in the dark about important aspects of LAPD shootings.


The department’s shooting reports routinely omit information that might cause the commission to question whether officers acted properly. Witnesses who told investigators that police fired without provocation have gone unmentioned. Physical evidence that contradicts an officer’s claim of self-defense has been left out.

The Times studied dozens of shootings, comparing the information presented to the Police Commission with confidential Police Department files, court records and other documents.

In at least 28 shootings, 15 of them fatal, the commission ruled that the use of force was “in policy” — that is, reasonable and justified — without knowing about evidence that pointed to the opposite conclusion.

A few examples:

• In 1999, police searching for the source of New Year’s Eve gunfire shot and killed a man they said had pointed a shotgun at them. Evidence that the officers mistakenly shot an unarmed man was left out of the investigative summary presented to the commission.

City lawyers, confronted later with the full evidence, agreed to pay the man’s family $2.6 million.

• In 1997, a drug-addled motorist slammed his car door on a police officer’s arm and tried to flee, pulling the officer along. Another officer then shot and killed the driver. The LAPD said it was the only way to save the trapped policeman.


However, four bystanders — not mentioned in the LAPD summary — told detectives that the policeman had gotten free of the car and was out of danger when his colleague shot the motorist to death.

• In 1996, officers shot and wounded two men they said had opened fire on them from the balcony of an apartment building. The LAPD summary depicted it as an open-and-shut case of self-defense.

Unknown to the commission, police investigators had found no evidence to support the officers’ account, and an internal LAPD panel had concluded that they did not come under fire. (See article, Page A26.)

Bernard C. Parks, police chief from 1997 to 2002 and now a City Council member and candidate for mayor, declined to be interviewed for this article.

His successor, William J. Bratton, said changes set in motion by the 1999 Rampart scandal had resulted in better shooting investigations and more forthright reports to the commission. But he said he was not satisfied.

In August, Bratton reorganized the unit that investigates officer-involved shootings — the second such overhaul in the last four years. In an interview, he said he was determined to “go where the truth takes us” in investigating shootings.


“We’re always going to be on a journey,” Bratton said. “We’re never going to get to the destination.”

David S. Cunningham III, a lawyer who is president of the Police Commission, said members of the panel recognize the need to view LAPD accounts skeptically and are scrutinizing shootings more vigorously than ever.

“You’ve got cops investigating cops,” he said. “There is always going to be a bias. Does that bias lead to unreliable conclusions? Sometimes.”

Gerald L. Chaleff, a former commission president who is now a top advisor to Bratton, said the pattern of omissions in the LAPD summaries suggested a breakdown in civilian oversight of the department.

“If we were in fact being misled or relying on incomplete information, then we weren’t able to perform our jobs and the system isn’t working at all,” Chaleff said. “Obviously, I am not pleased.”


Something Was Missing

Police had no choice but to shoot Terry Taylor. When officers shouted “Police!” and ordered him to drop his shotgun, he did not obey. Instead, he pointed the weapon at them.

This was the account provided by the LAPD, based on statements from the officers.

But there was something missing. Witness statements and physical evidence indicated that Taylor did not have a shotgun in his hands. The weight of the facts — the full facts — was that the police made a tragic mistake.

It happened just after midnight on Jan. 1, 1999. Taylor and a crowd of friends and relatives were celebrating the new year at his house in South Los Angeles.

Unknown to the revelers, a group of 77th Street Division officers was approaching the bungalow with guns drawn. They were on a “gunfire reduction detail” and had heard celebratory gunshots in the neighborhood. They were trying to find the source.

Officers Andrew Luong and Michael Menegio saw Taylor and two other men standing on a patio at the rear of the house. According to the LAPD summary, Taylor, 35, was holding a shotgun. Luong and Menegio said they opened fire when he disregarded their warning and aimed the weapon at them.

Taylor fell across the threshold of the back doorway. A round from Luong’s 9-millimeter pistol had pierced his heart.

Taylor, a father of five, had been a printer before a bad back put him on disability. His wife, Reda, went to work for the Postal Service, and he became a stay-at-home father. His children called him “Mr. Mom.” Now, they looked on as he bled to death on the living room floor.


When the case went before the commission 11 months later, the LAPD offered no hint that there might be questions about the shooting.

A summary of the department’s investigation, signed by then-Chief Parks, said that “the officers reasonably believed the suspect presented an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death.”

Commission members ruled the shooting “in policy.”

In the meantime, Taylor’s family had filed a civil rights suit. In the LAPD’s files, lawyer Samuel Paz found evidence that cast the shooting in an entirely different light.

The victim’s half-brother, Charles Anderson, had told police investigators that he — not Taylor — was holding the shotgun. Anderson said it was unloaded, cracked open at the chamber and inoperable by the time police arrived.

Detectives challenged him vigorously, interview transcripts show. They pushed him to admit that he was lying and that Taylor had been holding the weapon. They pointed out that as a paroled robber, he could be sent back to prison for possessing a firearm.

Anderson stuck to his story, and the evidence bore him out.

Officer Menegio had told detectives that the gunman standing on the patio had a white T-shirt on. Witnesses said Anderson was wearing such a shirt that night.


As for Taylor, a coroner’s photograph showed him in a dark green, long-sleeve shirt — a Christmas present from his wife.

The police version of events clashed with another key piece of evidence: blood that sprayed from Taylor’s body as the bullet exited below his right armpit. Droplets landed on the stock of the shotgun.

The LAPD summary said the department’s analysis of the spattered blood confirmed that Taylor was holding the weapon — and pointing the barrel at the officers — when he was shot.

Yet as the civil rights suit unfolded, experts for both the city and the Taylor family said it could not have happened that way.

Richard H. Fox, an evidence expert for the plaintiffs, said in a report that the pattern of blood droplets showed that the gun was 12 to 18 inches from Taylor’s body — and was pointed away from the officers.

This was consistent with Anderson’s statement that he was holding the gun, standing beside Taylor as the two walked toward the back door.


Ronald Raquel, an LAPD criminalist, said during a deposition that the weapon had to have been 6 to 12 inches from Taylor’s side.

Paz, the family’s lawyer, then asked Raquel about an LAPD photo reenactment of the incident that showed a man holding a shotgun close to his side, in a classic firing pose. Paz showed the nine pictures to Raquel one by one and asked whether Taylor could have been holding the gun as depicted when he was shot.

Nine times, Raquel replied: “No.”

When Paz previewed his case for city lawyers, they decided not to risk a jury trial. The city settled the lawsuit for $2.6 million.

Luong, now with the Buena Park Police Department, defended his actions.

“I believe in my heart I did the right thing,” he said in an interview. “I did what I felt I had to do to keep me and my partner alive.”

Menegio declined to comment.

Years earlier, Paz had secured a $5.5-million settlement for a Los Angeles Coliseum groundskeeper who was shot by a police officer and left paralyzed from the waist down.

That shooting, like Taylor’s, had been ruled “in policy.” In both cases, Paz said, he relied on evidence collected by the LAPD to show that its officers fired without justification.


“If there’s a message in this,” he said, “it’s ‘If I can do this, why can’t they?’ ”


Accountable Only to Itself

The practice of sanitizing shooting reports has persisted under successive mayors and police chiefs. It reflects an entrenched resistance to civilian oversight at the LAPD that dates back decades.

For much of its history, the department was accountable only to itself when it came to officers’ use of force. After a shooting, police investigated their own, in strict secrecy. Rarely were the findings made public.

The Police Commission, established in the 1920s to set policy for the department and supervise the chief, played little if any role in shooting investigations.

That changed after the killing of Eulia Mae Love in 1979. Love, 39, a widow from South Los Angeles, had flown into a rage when a gas company employee threatened to shut off her service unless she paid $22 on an overdue bill. She chased the man away with a shovel. Utility workers returned later that day with police backup.

After a brief standoff, Love threw a kitchen knife at the two officers. They emptied their revolvers, killing her instantly. Police Chief Daryl F. Gates pronounced the officers blameless, saying they had fired in self-defense. Protesters marched on Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters.

The commission launched an investigation and concluded that police had killed Love unnecessarily. The panel found, among other things, that they fired at least one round at Love as she lay wounded on the ground.


Ever since, the commission has reviewed all police shootings to determine whether the use of force was justified. If not, officers can be reprimanded, suspended and in rare instances fired.

The LAPD manual states that police should fire only “when it reasonably appears necessary” to protect themselves or others from death or serious injury. In deciding whether a shooting is consistent with that policy, the commission relies on the department’s own investigation.

Particularly important are the investigative summaries, known as “15-2s.” These reports, typically four to eight pages long, are supposed to lay out the salient facts, the chief’s recommendation to the commission and his reasoning.

In more than 80% of shootings since 1985, the earliest year for which records were available, the commission found officers’ actions “in policy,” as recommended by the chief.

One sign that the commission does not always get the whole story is that many shootings it judges “in policy” later result in sizable civil jury verdicts against the LAPD for excessive force — or in generous legal settlements with shooting victims or their family members.

The Times found that 101 officer-involved shootings have resulted in jury awards or settlements since 1985. The total cost to taxpayers: $68.5 million.


Seventy-seven of those shootings — more than three-fourths — were ruled “in policy.”

To understand why, reporters examined court records and confidential police files on 17 shootings that led to legal payments of $500,000 or more.

In 15 of the cases, evidence in conflict with the officers’ accounts was not included in the summary given to the commission. The shootings occurred as recently as 2002 and as long ago as 1986.

Looking at other “in policy” shootings, reporters discovered an additional 13 cases — resulting in smaller or no legal payments — in which significant information was left out of the summary.

Since 1999, commission members have received copies of the LAPD’s complete investigative files on shootings, as well as the summaries. But the full files are so voluminous and arcane that they are of little use to the commissioners, who rarely delve into them. They can run to dozens or even hundreds of pages for a single shooting, much of it highly technical material — autopsy findings, ballistics analysis, toxicology reports.

“I could read [an investigative file] 30 times and I wouldn’t pick up on something that someone who has been in this business for 20 years would,” said commission member Rick J. Caruso, a real estate developer. “That’s what the executive summaries are for.”

The LAPD inspector general’s office, created in 1996 in response to the Rodney King beating, is supposed to help the commission evaluate shootings. But with a host of other duties, the office has had little time to deconstruct the summaries or search the investigative files for hidden information.


Often, the full facts about a shooting come to light years after commission action, when a private attorney, poring over LAPD files for a lawsuit, discovers evidence that was not known to commission members.

Even when such cases result in expensive jury verdicts or settlements, the commission does not revisit its earlier “in policy” rulings — or try to determine why the LAPD left the information out of the summaries.

Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, a former commission president, said he was always uncomfortable relying on the summaries but saw no alternative.

“It was the most frustrating part of the job for me,” he said. “I never felt we received 100% of the story.”


A Very Different Story

Certainly they did not in the case of Leonard Robinson, the drug suspect who was shot in the hands — evidently while holding them in the air.

Robinson, a disabled ironworker from Louisiana, was in Room 312 of the Executive Inn in Gardena when LAPD narcotics officers battered down the door on June 18, 1997.


An informant had told police that Robinson was dealing cocaine from the room. Robinson, then 51, worked security at the motel in return for a break on his rent and was armed, the informant added.

Officer Nolte, clad in a helmet and body armor, dashed down a hallway and confronted the suspect. According to the LAPD summary, Robinson was holding a shotgun and raised the barrel, pointing it at the officer.

Nolte fired two shots from his own 12-gauge shotgun. The rounds struck Robinson in the hands, “causing him to relinquish his grip” on his weapon, the summary said.

Robinson told a very different story in court.

Under questioning by his lawyer, Jim Epstein, Robinson testified that he was in bed when he heard a commotion outside his door. He said he grabbed his shotgun, thinking that someone was breaking in, but dropped the weapon in his lap when he heard shouts of “Police!”

“I laid back and raised my hands up,” Robinson said.

He described how the first blast from Nolte’s shotgun tore into his right hand. “Then,” Robinson said, “he took another direct aim at me” and fired again.

Robinson’s right palm was peppered with buckshot. His ring finger was torn up. His index finger was blown off.


A doctor testified that Robinson must have bled profusely. Yet no tissue and only a few minute specks of blood were found on the shotgun he supposedly was holding. Nor was the gun damaged in the slightest by the two blasts from Nolte’s weapon.

The U.S. District Court jury that heard the civil rights suit in 2001 awarded Robinson $1 million in damages. When city lawyers appealed the verdict, judges from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Nolte’s claim of self-defense simply was not believable.

“How did he shoot the gun out of the guy’s hands without any damage to the gun and without any tissue or blood on the gun — even though [Robinson’s] hands were all chopped up?” one judge asked during a hearing last year.

He challenged the city’s lawyer, Amy Jo Field, to reconcile Nolte’s account with the evidence.

“I don’t think you can, your honor,” she said.

The city later agreed to pay Robinson a total of $2 million for the jury verdict and to settle a separate claim of false arrest.

Nolte, who remains on the force, declined to be interviewed.

Dean Hansell, an attorney who was on the Police Commission when it approved Nolte’s actions, said he was unaware there was evidence contradicting the officer’s account.


“If there is something that may tend to undercut what the officer said, that is information that the commission expects to have,” he said. “Clearly, it would have been highly significant to us.”

Asked to explain the omissions in the LAPD summary, Assistant Police Chief George Gascon said: “There are multiple possible explanations, and they go all the way from very evil people at the department hiding facts to very poor or incompetent people….

“The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.”


Disregarding Witnesses

By the LAPD’s account, Officer Bruce Nelson had no choice but to shoot. A motorist had trapped a fellow officer in his car door and was dragging him along the pavement. Nelson shot and killed the driver, Jonathan Horst, in order to save a colleague’s life.

Had they known all the facts, commission members would have been obliged to consider an alternative scenario: that an enraged Nelson executed Horst, and police came up with a rationale after the fact.

On the night of March 28, 1997, Horst, 33, blew through a traffic light in South Los Angeles and led police on a 20-minute chase. Police finally cornered his Subaru Justy on a pier in San Pedro.

As Sgt. Dennis Sebenick tried to pull him from the car, Horst slammed the door on the officer’s arm and punched the gas pedal. Sebenick was pulled about 30 feet until the Subaru plowed into a parked patrol car.


Nelson ran over and fired a shot at Horst. By the LAPD account, Horst kept driving, so Nelson took aim and fired two more rounds. Only then, according to the summary, did Horst release the car door, freeing Sebenick.

Horst, a onetime chef and aspiring artist who had developed a stubborn drug habit, died moments later of gunshot wounds to the upper body. Blood tests indicated he was on methamphetamine.

Sebenick suffered a bruised right arm.

“Officer Nelson reasonably believed the suspect presented an immediate threat of serious bodily injury or death to Sgt. Sebenick,” said the summary submitted by Parks.

The commission ruled the shooting “in policy.”

Unmentioned in the summary, however, were four witnesses who told detectives that Sebenick was out of harm’s way by the time Nelson opened fire.

The witnesses were dockworkers who were unloading a ship that night. Times reporters listened to tape recordings and reviewed transcripts of detectives’ interviews with the witnesses. They said they had a good view of the incident, aided by a spotlight shining down from an LAPD helicopter.

None of the dockworkers was critical of the officers’ conduct, and all seemed sympathetic to the dangers police had faced in dealing with Horst. Yet all four said matter-of-factly that Horst was killed after he had ceased to pose a threat to Sebenick.


Dockworker Ted Lucich said Sebenick was off to the side of Horst’s car, being tended to by fellow officers, before Nelson fired.

“This was before the shots were fired?” a detective asked.

“Yes,” Lucich replied.

Joel Vitalich said he saw Sebenick approach Horst’s car and become entangled in the door.

Horst “traveled about 10 to 15 feet with the officer trapped,” he said. “When they stopped, two police officers ran to the sergeant and pulled him out…. Then I heard a boom, a pause and boom-boom-boom.”

A third witness, Edward Loy, said he saw officers rush to Sebenick’s aid before Nelson shot the motorist.

“Once they got him cleared is when I heard those shots go off,” Loy said.

Sean Dover told detectives: “The officer that was hanging on [to Horst’s car] either fell off or let go.…. Then I heard two or three pops.”

Detectives did not press the witnesses for more information about the timing of Nelson’s gunshots, the tape recordings show. In fact, one investigator appeared to offer a justification for the shooting.

“It’s something [the officers] had to do, unfortunately, because they saw a brother officer getting hurt,” Det. Matthew Kuckowicz said to one of the dockworkers. “You know, we are going to get second-guessed on this by the news media and different groups and everything else and you guys are going to be the ones that, uh, you know.”


Kuckowicz did not respond to a request for comment. Nelson, who remains on the force, also declined to be interviewed.

Paul Mills, who filed a federal civil rights suit against the LAPD on behalf of Horst’s parents, said he was not surprised that the dockworkers’ observations were absent from the summary.

“It’s the classic LAPD procedure of ….disregarding the non-police witnesses to the extent that they say anything non-favorable to the officers,” he said.

The city settled the lawsuit for $99,999.99. That is one penny below the sum that would have required City Council approval — and subjected the shooting to additional scrutiny.


A Flurry of Changes

In the last few years, the LAPD has come under renewed pressure to investigate shootings more rigorously and disclose the results more fully. The death of Margaret Mitchell provided part of the stimulus for change.

Mitchell, 55, a mentally ill homeless woman, was pushing a shopping cart near 4th Street and La Brea Avenue on May 21, 1999, when Officer Edward Larrigan stopped her to find out whether the cart was stolen. Larrigan said he shot the 5-foot-1 Mitchell in self-defense when she lunged at him with a screwdriver.


When an outcry ensued, the commission took the unusual step of reviewing transcripts of detectives’ tape-recorded interviews with witnesses. LAPD officials had said that bystanders corroborated Larrigan’s statement. Yet the transcripts showed that some of those witnesses said Mitchell had not lunged at the officer. The commissioners declared the shooting “out of policy.”

The Rampart scandal, marked by revelations that anti-gang officers had routinely framed suspects and covered up unjustified shootings, added to the pressure for reform.

A flurry of changes resulted, some embodied in a 2000 consent decree between the city and the U.S. Justice Department. The LAPD was required to give the commission more information about shootings, including transcripts of all witness statements. In drafting summaries, the department was to include evidence that cast doubt on officers’ accounts.

Though impressive on paper, the changes have not ensured that commission members receive the full, unvarnished facts.

That much is evident from the case of Jason Mitchell.


‘No Reason to Shoot’

On the morning of June 11, 2002, two patrolmen pulled Mitchell over on West 65th Place in South Los Angeles. They said he had cut off oncoming traffic when he made a hasty left turn from Western Avenue.

Officer Anthony Perez ran a computer check and learned that Mitchell’s driver’s license had been suspended. Perez told him that by law, he would have to impound his black Ford F150 pickup.


Mitchell, 33, a hairdresser, replied that he’d gone to court and cleared up the questions about his license.

“All that information is at my house,” he said, according to an audiotape made by a recorder in Perez’s shirt pocket. “I’m two blocks down.”

Perez said it made no difference.

“So what do you want me to do?” Mitchell asked.

“Nothing,” Perez said. “There’s nothing you can do right now.”

Moments later, apparently worried that Mitchell might flee, Perez stepped onto the running board of the pickup truck, reached through the open driver’s side door and tried to turn off the ignition.

Mitchell protested, then put the truck in gear and pulled away, with Perez holding on to the door frame. Mitchell veered across the street and sideswiped a parked car. Then the pickup jumped a curb and rolled toward a house.

Perez, still on the running board, feared that Mitchell intended to crush him against the house, according to the LAPD. He drew his .45-caliber pistol and shot Mitchell twice, killing him.

The department later admonished Perez for tactical mistakes and said he should never have stepped on the running board in the first place. Nevertheless, police officials said, he was justified in firing, because his life was in danger.


Two witnesses told a different story. Auto mechanics Dudley Latham and Errol Banket were standing outside their repair shop. They said Perez shot Mitchell after the truck had plowed into a carport and come to a stop. Both said Perez was not in any danger when he fired.

“After it hit the building, the officer backed up and pulled the weapon and shot,” Latham told LAPD Det. Brian Carr.

“There was no reason to shoot,” Banket told the same detective in a separate interview.

To sort out the conflicting accounts, the LAPD hired a consulting firm, Biodynamics Engineering Inc. of Pacific Palisades, to reconstruct the incident using Perez’s audiotape and other evidence. The firm produced a 13-page report and a computer-generated video, both indicating that Perez’s story was consistent with the evidence.

The summary that Chief Bratton submitted to the commission in May 2003 stated that the reconstruction “refuted the witnesses’ perceptions that Officer Perez stepped off the truck after it came to a stop and then fired his rounds.”

That was further than Biodynamics was prepared to go. On the first page of its report, the firm said the findings were “not intended to prove or disprove” Perez’s account. The authors also acknowledged that they could not determine from listening to the tape exactly when Perez fired — before or after the truck had stopped.

Parris Ward, one of the authors, said in an interview that the evidence could be interpreted as showing that Perez shot Mitchell after the pickup had crashed, just as the two witnesses said.


There was another problem with the summary. Despite the post-Rampart promises, it did not tell the whole story.

The report said Mitchell suffered two gunshot wounds — one to the head and one to the neck. Looking through the LAPD’s full investigative file, Carl Douglas, a lawyer for Mitchell’s parents, found a coroner’s document that described a third gunshot wound — to Mitchell’s left middle finger.

Douglas told city lawyers that if the case went to trial, he would argue that Mitchell was shot while raising his hands in a gesture of surrender. In June, the city paid $1.25 million to settle the case.

A month later, Times reporters asked the LAPD why the summary made no mention of the finger wound. Police officials said they had not realized it was from a gunshot. They then reopened their investigation, contacted the coroner and confirmed that the injury was from a gunshot.

But in the end, LAPD officials decided to stick to their original view that the shooting was justified. They did so without presenting the new information to the Police Commission, which had long since ruled the shooting “in policy.”

Mitchell’s father, Don Matthews, is a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s lieutenant. He said that at first, he and his wife, Judy, trusted police to conduct an objective investigation.


Not anymore.

“They let a routine traffic stop escalate to the point of someone dying,” he said. “The whole LAPD investigation was designed to justify the officers’ actions, not to find all the facts.”



Layers of scrutiny

Officer-involved shootings are supposed to be the most closely scrutinized of all police actions.

LAPD procedures:

Step 1: Specially trained detectives go to the scene, collect evidence and interview police officers and witnesses. Later, they write a detailed report.

Step 2: The Use of Force Review Board, a panel of high-ranking LAPD officials, examines the case and decides whether officers acted “in policy.” If not, the board can call for retraining or disciplinary action.

Step 3: The police chief modifies or accepts the board’s findings.

Step 4: Staff officers write a four- to eight-page summary of the incident, with the chief’s recommendations.

Step 5: The Police Commission deliberates behind closed doors and makes the final decision.


Source: LAPD



Police Commission at a glance

Five members, all civilians, set policy for the Police Department and supervise the chief. They are appointed by the mayor, with consent of the City Council, and serve a maximum of two five-year terms, without pay.


David S. Cunningham III, president; lawyer specializing in land use

Alan J. Skobin, vice president; general counsel, Galpin Motors Inc.

Rick J. Caruso, real estate developer

Rose Ochi, lawyer, former assistant U.S. attorney general

Corina Alarcon, political activist, heads a nonprofit that aids battered women

Staff: 90 employees, including executive director, inspector-general, detectives and management analysts.



When information is omitted

Victims of LAPD shootings sometimes win large legal settlements or jury verdicts against the city — even when the Police Commission has ruled that the officers acted properly. One reason: The commission often does not have all the facts. Here are 15 shootings the panel found “in policy” that later resulted in legal payments of $500,000 or more. In each case, the commission based its ruling on an investigative summary from the LAPD that omitted key information.

Jan. 22, 1986

Victim: Javier Perez, 28, shot and killed in the parking lot of a Van Nuys condominium complex.

Police account: Perez, suspected in a hit-and-run accident, swung a baseball bat at an off-duty officer.

Plaintiff’s account: The officer beat the unarmed Perez with the butt of his gun, then shot him repeatedly while the suspect was on his knees.

Missing from LAPD summary: The angle at which bullets entered Perez’s body contradicted the officer’s account.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $630,000.


Nov. 6, 1987

Victim: Adelaido Altamirano, 41, a Los Angeles Coliseum groundskeeper, shot and paralyzed from the waist down.


Police account: Altamirano pointed a gun at an off-duty officer.

Plaintiff’s account: Altamirano brandished a gun to fend off a mugger. The officer shot without warning.

Missing from LAPD summary: The path of the bullet through Altamirano’s body showed he was not pointing his gun at the officer when he was shot.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $5.5 million.


March 23, 1988

Victim: Jaime Cardona, 24, shot and paralyzed from the waist down outside a San Fernando Valley apartment building.

Police account: Two officers tried to arrest Cardona for allegedly brandishing a gun. One officer shot Cardona when he tried to grab her partner’s weapon.

Plaintiff’s account: Cardona was unarmed and never made a move for the officer’s weapon.

Missing from LAPD summary: Civilian witnesses said Cardona did not grab the officer’s gun.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $675,000.


Jan. 13, 1993


Victim: Clarence Watson, 26, shot and paralyzed from the waist down after a traffic stop in South Los Angeles.

Police account: Watson pointed a gun at the officer.

Plaintiff’s account: Watson was unarmed.

Missing from LAPD summary: Gunshot wounds to Watson’s right palm indicate he was not holding a gun.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $3.5 million.


April 25, 1993

Victim: Justice Hasan Netherly, 43, shot to death on the porch of his South Los Angeles home after he called 911 to report a disturbance.

Police account: Netherly threatened an officer with a weapon that appeared to be an ax. It turned out to be a large stick.

Plaintiff’s account: Netherly called police after getting into an argument with his brother. By the time police arrived, his brother had left. The officer shot Netherly without cause.

Missing from LAPD summary: A neighbor who witnessed the incident said Netherly did nothing to provoke the shooting.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $600,000.


June 27, 1993


Victim: Joseph Flores, 27, shot and wounded outside a South Los Angeles apartment building.

Police account: Flores lunged at an officer summoned to quell a domestic dispute. The officer, mistakenly believing Flores had a knife, shot him. Flores was suicidal and deliberately instigated the shooting, hoping to be killed.

Plaintiff’s account: Flores was unarmed and did not lunge at the officer.

Missing from LAPD summary: Flores told an investigator that he did not lunge but, rather, stumbled down stairs while trying to surrender to the officer.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $570,000.


Dec. 16, 1993

Victim: Sonji Taylor, 27, shot repeatedly, including seven times in the back, and killed after threatening her 3-year-old son with a knife.

Police account: After police rescued her son, Taylor lunged at officers with a butcher knife.

Plaintiff’s account: Taylor did not lunge at officers.

Missing from LAPD summary: A security guard said Taylor was not close enough to harm the officers when they opened fire.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout:

$2.45 million.


Oct. 8, 1994


Victim: Larry Friedman, 24, shot and paralyzed from the chest down after officers responded to a disturbance at a group home in Northridge.

Police account: Friedman lunged at police with a kitchen knife.

Plaintiff’s account: Friedman made no aggressive move toward police.

Missing from LAPD summary: Two civilian witnesses said Friedman did not threaten the officer.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $3.25 million.


March 11, 1996

Victim: Eduardo Hurtado, 29, shot and killed after police pulled over a car to question occupants.

Police account: Officers suspected the occupants were gang members in a stolen car. Hurtado tried to pull away while an officer was leaning into the vehicle.

Plaintiff’s account: Officers fired without provocation.

Missing from LAPD summary: A passenger’s account suggested that officers chased the car not because they suspected it was stolen, but because one of the occupants made an obscene gesture at them.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $900,000.


July 20, 1996


Victims: Juan Saldana, 19, killed, and Oscar Peralta, 19, injured, in a Mid-City apartment building.

Police account: Saldana and Peralta pointed guns at police officers.

Plaintiff’s account: The two men were unarmed. The officers planted guns on them.

Missing from LAPD summary: Witness statements that contradicted the officers’ account.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $710,000.


April 17, 1997

Victim: Peter Williams, 40, shot in the stomach outside a Van Nuys tattoo parlor.

Police account: Williams threatened a detective with a hammer.

Plaintiff’s account: Williams picked up the hammer to defend his boss, who was in a fistfight with a customer.

Missing from LAPD summary: Witness accounts did not support the detective’s claim that Williams threatened him.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $950,000.


June 18, 1997

Victim: Leonard Robinson, 51, shot and wounded during a narcotics raid.

Police account: Robinson pointed a shotgun at an officer.

Plaintiff’s account: Robinson had dropped the shotgun and was trying to surrender.

Missing from LAPD summary: Wounds to Robinson’s right palm and index finger indicated that he had his hands in the air.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $2 million.


Jan. 1, 1999

Victim: Terry Taylor, 35, shot and killed in the backyard of his South Los Angeles home during a New Year’s Eve celebration.


Police account: Taylor pointed a shotgun at police.

Plaintiff’s account: Taylor was unarmed. Another man was holding the shotgun, which was unloaded and inoperable.

Missing from LAPD summary: A relative of Taylor’s told investigators that he — not Taylor — was holding the gun. Blood and ballistics evidence also contradicted the police account.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $2.6 million.


Feb. 8, 1999

Victim: Frank Harris, 14, shot at by police investigating alleged drug activity in a South Los Angeles home.

Police account: Harris pointed a gun at an officer.

Plaintiff’s account: An officer masquerading as a gang member shot without cause and planted a gun to justify his actions.

Missing from LAPD summary: The district attorney’s office was investigating the officer for possible criminal conduct in the shooting. An earlier search of his locker found a fake gun, which investigators believed he intended to plant.


Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $1.7 million to Harris and co-plaintiffs.


June 11, 2002

Victim: Jason Mitchell, 33, shot to death after a traffic stop in South Los Angeles.

Police account: Mitchell drove away with a police officer standing on the running board of his truck, then rammed parked cars in an attempt to harm the officer.

Plaintiff’s account: The officer shot Mitchell after the truck had come to a stop and he was no longer in danger. Mitchell had his hands raised in surrender.

Missing from LAPD summary: An unexplained gunshot wound to Mitchell’s hand.

Commission ruling: In policy.

Legal payout: $1.25 million.


SOURCE: LAPD, city attorney’s office, court records