Po­lice faulted in shoot­ing of Ford

Of­fi­cer’s ac­tions vi­o­lated LAPD pol­icy and fu­eled fa­tal con­fronta­tion, com­mis­sion says

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate Mather and Joel Ru­bin

Los An­ge­les Po­lice Of­fi­cer Sharl­ton Wampler said he was in a life-and-death strug­gle with Ezell Ford, wrestling over the of­fi­cer’s gun on a sum­mer evening last year. Fear­ing Ford would get con­trol of the weapon, Wampler pulled out a backup gun from be­neath his uni­form and fired a fa­tal shot into his back.

The ac­count prompted Chief Char­lie Beck to con­clude Wampler was jus­ti­fied in open­ing fire.

But on Tues­day, the L.A. Po­lice Com­mis­sion re­jected Beck’s find­ing, rul­ing that Wampler’s use of deadly force vi­o­lated LAPD pol­icy.

Although Wampler may have been in a fight for his life, the com­mis­sion de­cided

he did not have a rea­son to stop and de­tain Ford in the first place. His han­dling of the en­counter, the com­mis­sion con­cluded, was so flawed that it led to the fa­tal con­fronta­tion.

The de­ci­sion marked a sig­nif­i­cant de­par­ture for the com­mis­sion, which for decades has looked only at whether an of­fi­cer faced a threat at the mo­ment deadly forced was used.

The com­mis­sion in­stead re­lied for the first time on a small but sig­nif­i­cant change it made last year to its pol­icy on shoot­ings, which made it clear the panel should take a broader view of in­ci­dents. On Tues­day, the com­mis­sion said it based its rul­ing on “the to­tal­ity of the cir­cum­stances, and not just the mo­ment in which the force was used.”

The find­ing on Wampler, a 13-year vet­eran of the LAPD, was part of a mixed rul­ing handed down by the com­mis­sion in the con­tro­ver­sial killing of Ford, which has fanned public anger and de­bate over the use of deadly force by po­lice.

The death of Ford, who was African Amer­i­can, be­came a lo­cal touch­stone in a year when a string of con­tro­ver­sial killings of black men by po­lice around the coun­try spurred a na­tional de­bate about race and polic­ing. Ford, who had been di­ag­nosed with bipo­lar dis­or­der and schizophre­nia, died two days af­ter the fa­tal po­lice shoot­ing of Michael Brown in Fer­gu­son, Mo., which set off the out­cry.

Wampler, who is Asian Amer­i­can, was work­ing with a part­ner that night, An­to­nio Vil­le­gas, who is Latino. The com­mis­sion found that Vil­le­gas was far less cul­pa­ble. The panel dis­ap­proved only of Vil­le­gas’ ini­tial de­ci­sion to draw his weapon early on in the con­fronta­tion, but said he ul­ti­mately was right to fire at Ford in an ef­fort to pro­tect Wampler.

The five-mem­ber com­mis­sion de­lib­er­ated be­hind closed doors for sev­eral hours be­fore emerg­ing to an­nounce its de­ci­sion. In an emo­tional, rowdy public meet­ing be­fore­hand that ran for nearly three hours, com­mis­sion­ers lis­tened as dozens of peo­ple called on them to hold the of­fi­cers accountable for Ford’s death.

Once the de­ci­sion was an­nounced, the crowd in the com­mis­sion’s meet­ing room re­sponded by shout­ing, “mur­der!” As com­mis­sion­ers filed out of the room, some in the crowd pushed for­ward, de­mand­ing to know what the de­ci­sion meant for the of­fi­cers and what pun­ish­ment they might face.

It now falls to Beck, who alone is au­tho­rized to dis­ci­pline of­fi­cers, to de­cide what pun­ish­ment, if any, to im­pose.

In past shoot­ing cases in which the com­mis­sion went against Beck’s rec­om­men­da­tion, the chief has an­gered the board by re­fus­ing to hand down dis­ci­pline or giv­ing only writ­ten ad­mon­ish­ments. The chief can choose from op­tions that in­clude order­ing the of­fi­cers to be re­trained, sus­pend­ing them or mov­ing to fire the of­fi­cers.

Un­der a state law that gives po­lice of­fi­cers sweep­ing pri­vacy rights, Beck’s de­ci­sion on how to deal with

the of­fi­cers will not be made public.

At a news con­fer­ence Tues­day night, Mayor Eric Garcetti said he had con­fi­dence Beck “will en­act ap­pro­pri­ate dis­ci­pline based on what the com­mis­sion has ren­dered.” He de­clined to of­fer an opin­ion on what pun­ish­ment the of­fi­cers should face, say­ing the de­ci­sion rested with the chief.

Beck re­leased a state­ment say­ing, “I re­spect the process and the de­ci­sion made in this mat­ter.”

Ford’s mother, Tri­to­bia Ford, said that her ini­tial re­ac­tion to the com­mis­sion’s rul­ing was, “Hallelujah!”

The board’s de­ci­sion, she said, “strongly, on the record, stated that what hap­pened to Ezell was wrong.”

Ford praised the com­mis­sion­ers, but had harsher words for Beck, say­ing she ex­pects the chief to give Wampler at most a “slap on the wrist.”

At­tor­ney Gary Fuller­ton, whose firm rep­re­sents the two of­fi­cers, said he was pleased that one of­fi­cer was cleared but dis­ap­pointed in the rul­ing against the other.

Fuller­ton de­fended the of­fi­cers, say­ing that the ev­i­dence in the case showed they acted rea­son­ably.

“What we’re con­cerned about is the com­mis­sion suc­cumbed to the pres­sure of the mob,” he said. “It’s a shame that po­lice of­fi­cers can’t do their job and pro­tect their lives.”

In a re­port re­leased Tues­day, Beck de­tailed the of­fi­cers’ ac­counts of their fast­mov­ing en­counter with Ford, which they said es­ca­lated sud­denly and lasted only sec­onds.

Wampler told in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tors that Ford turned on him as he tried to hand­cuff him, tack­ling the of­fi­cer and pin­ning him to the ground.

“He’s go­ing for my gun. He’s go­ing for my gun,” Wampler shouted to Vil­le­gas, who was try­ing to sub­due Ford, ac­cord­ing to Beck’s re­port.

Con­tend­ing he was un­able to see whether Ford was try­ing to get Wampler’s gun, Vil­le­gas said he be­lieved his part­ner was in dan­ger and fired a shot at close range. Ford ap­peared un­fazed and Wampler said he felt the gun com­ing out of his hol­ster. He called out again to Vil­le­gas, who fired a sec­ond time.

At the same time, Wampler said he reached be­neath his uni­form shirt and bal­lis­tic vest to pull out a 5-shot re­volver he car­ried as a backup. Ford went “limp” when Wampler reached around and fired a sin­gle shot into the man’s back, the of­fi­cer said.

To Beck, Ford’s al­leged ac­tions “es­tab­lished a rea­son­able be­lief ” in the of­fi­cers’ minds that they were faced with a deadly threat and jus­ti­fied their de­ci­sion to fire, the chief wrote in his re­port.

How­ever, the com­mis­sion’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, Alex Bus­ta­mante, took a dif­fer­ent view. In a sep­a­rate re­port to the panel, Bus­ta­mante agreed that when viewed by it­self the shoot­ing was jus­ti­fied. He urged the com­mis­sion, how­ever, to judge the of­fi­cers based on the en­tire en­counter.

He also of­fered a sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent ac­count from Beck of Wampler’s de­ci­sion to ap­proach Ford.

For the first time since the Aug. 11 shoot­ing, Beck of­fered in his re­port an ex­pla­na­tion for why Wampler and Vil­le­gas chose to con­front Ford as he walked near his home.

The of­fi­cers told in­ves­ti­ga­tors that when Ford would not stop to talk to them, they grew sus­pi­cious that he was in pos­ses­sion of drugs and was try­ing to dis­card them to avoid ar­rest. Beck wrote that the of­fi­cers’ sus­pi­cions were based on hav­ing seen Ford walk­ing away from a group of gang mem­bers.

But in his re­port to the panel, Bus­ta­mante said the of­fi­cers told in­ves­ti­ga­tors they never saw Ford in­ter­act with the group and that he was 20 or 30 feet away from them when the of­fi­cers first saw him. No drugs were found on or near Ford, the re­port said.

The com­mis­sion, in the end, con­cluded that Wampler’s “de­ci­sion to ap­proach and phys­i­cally con­tact the sub­ject was an un­jus­ti­fied” de­par­ture from LAPD rules.

Pho­tog raphs by Ir­fan Khan As­so­ci­ated Press

JAS­MINE RICHARDS holds a pic­ture of Ezell Ford in­side LAPD head­quar­ters Tues­day dur­ing public com­ments at Po­lice Com­mis­sion hear­ing.

TRI­TO­BIA FORD, the mother of Ezell Ford, speaks at the L.A. Po­lice Com­mis­sion hear­ing. Af­ter the rul­ing, she praised com­mis­sion­ers.

Ir­fan Khan Los An­ge­les Times

STEVE SOBOROFF, pres­i­dent of the Po­lice Com­mis­sion, speaks with a crowd gath­ered to hear to com­mis­sion find­ings on the po­lice shoot­ing of Ezell Ford.

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