Los Angeles Times
DEATH OF OFFICER DEEMED ACCIDENT
Coroner’s report contradicts mother’s contention that he was fatally beaten.
The 32-year-old Los Angeles police officer who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury during a training exercise in May was serving as a class instructor when he fell to the ground while holding another officer in a “bear hug,” according to an autopsy report by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.
The report, obtained by The Times on Wednesday, provides the most thorough account to date of how Officer Houston Tipping died, and comes after weeks of secrecy by Los Angeles Police Department officials, who have refused to provide details of what occurred. The report’s findings contradict allegations by Tipping’s mother that he was beaten by a group of overzealous officers attempting to “simulate a mob.”
An attorney representing Tipping’s mother has publicly highlighted a laceration to Tipping’s head as evidence supporting their claim. But that injury and fractured ribs Tipping suffered were the result of efforts to save his life, according to the county’s medical examiner, who ruled the death an accident.
Details in the autopsy report corroborate accounts from multiple sources familiar with the incident, who requested anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Those sources, who are
all members of the department or have knowledge of the investigation, characterized Tipping’s injury as an accident. But they also questioned whether adequate safety measures were in place, saying that Tipping was not properly certified to be an instructor and that the room where the training was held lacked sufficient padding to protect against the type of injury he sustained.
According to the autopsy, an LAPD sergeant said Tipping “was an instructor in a training where he was engaging a student in a face to face bear hug” when the two fell to the ground — which was “a hard mat with not a lot of padding.”
The report said it was possible that the other officer landed on top of Tipping. It does not say whether Tipping was certified as an instructor.
Multiple sources told The Times that Tipping was the designated aggressor in a scenario meant to teach officers how to fend off a suspect who had become combative. They said that after Tipping lifted the other officer off the ground, the officer grabbed Tipping in a way that sent them both crashing to the ground.
“Every person in there will say it happened so freaking fast that no one could even say ‘stop,’ ” said one source with knowledge of the investigation.
That source also said that another instructor had been leading the exercise and playing the part of the “suspect” before Tipping stepped in. Tipping, multiple sources said, was wearing padded protective gear when the accident occurred.
The sources said the decision by Tipping’s superior officers to allow him to instruct a training in which officers were required to use force on one another in a poorly padded room made the class far more dangerous than it should have been.
Allowing Tipping to teach others appeared to be a breach of statewide training standards and national standards for hands-on tactical trainings, the sources said.
Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff in Northern California who is also a lawyer and use-of-force expert, said leading a training course that simulates a physical encounter with a suspect requires specific skills that instructors should learn through formal training.
The seemingly avoidable death of a fellow officer has devastated but also angered many in the LAPD, the sources said — especially amid conflicting narratives about how it all played out.
The dramatic allegations of Tipping’s mother, Shirley Huffman, drew national attention. Her claim against the city — often a precursor to a lawsuit — alleged wrongful death, assault and battery, and other civil rights violations.
Part of Huffman’s claim, advanced by her attorney Bradley Gage, had focused on additional injuries they allege Tipping had sustained, including to his head and ribs.
But in the autopsy report, Deputy Medical Examiner Lawrence Nguyen noted that although deaths “at the hands of another” are typically deemed homicides, there are exceptions for injuries suffered during organized sports or exercises such as boxing matches and football games where “participants are consensual to committing potentially harmful acts and accept the inherent risks.”
He ruled that Tipping’s death was such an exception.
Nguyen found that a laceration to Tipping’s head was from a clamp used during spinal surgery, and rib fractures appeared to have been related to efforts to resuscitate Tipping.
Gage on Wednesday dismissed the autopsy report as incomplete, saying it had “holes” in it. He did not offer specifics. He also said he stood by the allegations in the mother’s claim.
After Huffman’s allegations were made public, LAPD Chief Michel Moore disputed that Tipping had been beaten.
Moore said Tipping “did not sustain any type of laceration to his head,” as Huffman had alleged, and was “not struck or beaten during this training session.”
But he provided few details on what had occurred, other than to say Tipping had been “grappling” with another officer.
More recently, Moore said he’d ordered a “full investigation” by the department’s Office of Constitutional Policing and Policy that would look not just at the circumstances of Tipping’s death, but also at whether the underlying training exercise had adhered to statewide standards for such trainings.
The chief said “preliminary reports” indicated that there were certified instructors and “adjunct” instructors “on scene” at the time Tipping was injured, but he did not specify what he meant by “on scene,” and emphasized that the investigation was ongoing.
In the few public comments about the incident, the department has not said Tipping was an instructor.
Moore said he wanted the “clear, unvarnished facts” of what happened before commenting further and would not “debate” those facts publicly based on attempts by other parties to “litigate this in the media.”
“The outcome of all this, of course, is to understand what happened and ensure that such an accident never reoccurs,” he said.
Capt. Kelly Muniz, an LAPD spokeswoman, declined to comment on the autopsy Wednesday, citing the pending litigation.
“It was a hard hit for everyone, but we’re not going to remark on it anymore,” Muniz said.
Mark Geragos, an attorney for Tipping’s father, Richard Tipping, said they were “disturbed by some of the statements by the medical examiner and the conclusion of the autopsy” and were conducting their own investigation into the incident.