The last time Los Angeles County prosecutors charged a police officer for shooting someone was in 2001.
In each of the 409 shootings since January 2010, prosecutors determined on-duty officers were justified in using deadly force. Faced with a rifle, amachete, or no weapon at all, police shot in the name of defense and fatally wounded their targets about half the time.
District attorneys, who have their own set of pressures, often side with police and keep them out of court. Prosecutors rely on officers to testify in their daily cases. Also, attorneys have to overcome a high legal standard and win over courtrooms generally sympathetic to police. This means shootings that appear borderline to an average citizen might never be brought to trial.
“Juries are very reluctant to second-guess police officers in their split-second life or death decisions,” said Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson. “Policing is ugly. Policing is violent. Courts recognize that.”
While no national database tracks all “officer-involved shootings” and prosecutions, it is safe to say officers rarely face criminal charges, said David A. Klinger, associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Police are justified in using deadly force if a reasonable officer in the same situation would have believed there was an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others, Stinson said.
LAPD Officer Ronald Orosco was the last officer to be prosecuted in L.A. Charged in 2001 with shooting an unarmed motorist in the back during a routine traffic stop, he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to five years in state prison. Orosco was arguing with Charles Beatty, 66, about a left-turn violation in South L.A. when the dispute escalated. Beatty complied with police orders and was getting ready to drive away, but another oral exchange turned physical. Beatty said he was fleeing out of fear when Orosco, 2 feet away, shot him through the driver’s side rear window.
After officers in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., were cleared in fatal incidents last year, critics argued district attorneys were too collegial with police to objectively evaluate shootings.
A specialized prosecution unit — like the Justice System Integrity Division in Los Angeles — may be insulated from some of this bias, said Stinson, but the policing subculture is “significantly ingrained” in prosecutors’ offices, he said.
The DA has charged many officers with physical assault under color of authority, spokeswoman Jane Robison said, including two pending cases — LAPD Officer Jonathan Lai and former LAPD Officer Mary O’Callaghan.
When a local district attorney declines to prosecute, the U.S. Department of Justice sometimes investigates if officers violated someone’s civil rights. A federal grand jury indicted officers for the beating of Rodney King in 1992. Last week, federal agents and prosecutors cleared Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown.
• Moises De La Torre was suffering from mental health, drug and alcohol problems when he threatened to kill a woman on Feb. 24, 2013. He appeared to be homeless and asking for money, she told police, but instead of begging, he walked to her car’s driver’s side window and made the threat. De La Torre, 26, pulled what appeared to be a gun out of a duffle bag, she told a police dispatcher. LAPD officers headed to the scene on Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood, where they found De La Torre standing in the middle of the street. He also threatened to kill the two officers, they said, and failed to pull his hand out of the bag, despite orders. He was walking toward them when Officer Juan Galvan shot him in the chest. Inside the bag they found a pink folding chair with black legs.
• Nestor “Husky” Torres, 37, was armed with two handguns when Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies stopped a white compact car in East Los Angeles. It was about 7:18 p.m. on Jan. 11, 2011. Ordered out of the front passenger seat, Torres tried to run, but Deputy Daniel Reyes grabbed his jacket and tackled him. The other deputy, Mohamed Ahmed, tried to fire his Taser, but couldn’t get it out of the holster. Suddenly, Torres, a gang member, shot Ahmed in the face, resulting in the loss of his left eye. Torres then pointed his .40-caliber Glock at Reyes’ chest. Reyes grabbed the gun’s muzzle and tried to push it away from his body. Torres fired two more rounds, but missed, and Reyes pushed him against a chain-linked fence. Reyes grabbed his own gun with his other hand and fatally shot Torres in the face.
• Darrick Collins was standing in a driveway on Poindexter Avenue, near the site of an armed robbery in Lennox on Sept. 14, 2009. He wasn’t involved in the robbery, but he and his friends matched the descriptions of the suspects, including their Jeep Cherokee. Two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies stopped that night to question them when Collins ran, ignoring orders to stop and show his hands, according to the DA’s report. “With his right hand in his waistband,” the report says, Collins opened a wood gate with his left hand. Deputy Kevin Brown “observed a black object in Collins’ right hand that he believed was a gun.” The report says Brown ordered Collins to drop it, but he didn’t comply. Brown shot three times through the fence’s wood slats and killed Collins. They found a black cellphone next to his body but no gun. Deputies also allegedly found a baggie of Ecstasy pills in Collins’ pocket. The shooting led to reforms at the Sheriff’s Department and a $900,000 settlement for Collins’ family.
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