Civilian Board Says LAPD Officers Acted Improperly In Ezell Ford Shooting

jasmine-richards

Jasmine Richards held up a photograph of Ezell Ford during a Board of Police Commissioners hearing on Tuesday in Los Angeles in which the shooting of Mr. Ford last August was discussed. Credit Monica Almeida/The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — One of the two police officers involved in the shooting death in August of Ezell Ford, an unarmed, mentally ill black man, behaved improperly throughout the confrontation, and the other was unjustified in drawing his weapon in one instance, a civilian oversight committee for the Los Angeles Police Department ruled Tuesday.

The decision by the commission came after nearly three hours of public comment, with dozens of critics calling the death of Mr. Ford the latest example of overly aggressive police tactics that target black and Latino men.

The commission found that both officers acted improperly when they drew their guns, and that one officer also acted improperly in both approaching Mr. Ford and using his gun. The commission did not elaborate on the reasons for its decision.

What will next happen to the officers rests with Charlie Beck, the chief of the police, who previously said both officers had acted appropriately.

The decision by the committee, known as the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, was initially met with confusion, as angry observers yelled “murderers, murderers” at the commissioners. Steve Soboroff, the commission’s president, said the panel’s findings would be sent to the district attorney, who is conducting a separate investigation and would decide if charges against the officers were warranted.

Los Angeles has a long history of tense relations between the police and the black and Latino communities, and many community leaders worried that a ruling absolving the officers would set off unrest. Occurring just two days after the shooting of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., Mr. Ford’s death set off a wave of protests here.

“Today the system worked the way it is supposed to with an impartial civilian review board,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a news conference at City Hall on Tuesday.

While he praised the changes the city has made since the riots of 1965 and 1992, he acknowledged that deep divides remain in the city.

“I know it is a painful moment to be a young Angeleno,” he said. “You should always feel safe, you should always feel strong here as well.”

“Ezell Ford’s life mattered. Black lives matter,” Mr. Garcetti continued. “We have a system that can work. Every life matters, but due process matters, too.”

Mr. Ford, 25, was walking through his neighborhood in south Los Angeles when the two officers approached him. After a confrontation in which, the officers said, he lunged for one of their guns, they shot him three times,including once in the back.

The committee had to decide whether the officers complied with the department’s policies in several ways: how they approached Mr. Ford, whether they were justified in drawing their weapons and whether they were justified in the use of deadly force.

To reach the decision, the commissioners relied on two reports: one from Chief Beck and the other from Alex Bustamante, the department’s inspector general.

Department officials have previously identified the two officers involved in the shootings as Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas, both members of a gang enforcement unit. It appeared Officer Wampler, the more senior of the two officers, was found to have violated three rules. Mr. Villegas, the commission found, inappropriately drew his gun, but was justified when he later fired at Mr. Ford.

The five commissioners deliberated for nearly three hours after a tense hearing filled with emotional public comments, including a tearful plea from Tritobia Ford, Mr. Ford’s mother.

“You said we deserve fairness,” Ms. Ford said, addressing the head of the commission. She said her son had the mental capacity of an 8- or 10-year-old and had been stopped by the police in the past. “I’m asking you, I’m begging you — please, please! My son would never grab for no gun; he wanted to live.”

When one speaker refused to abide by a two-minute time limit, the entire commission walked out and temporarily stopped the meeting.

The hearing was held to hear public comments, but the members then met privately to review the evidence and render a decision, relying on the two reports as well as testimony from investigators and other experts.

In his 24-page report provided to the board, Chief Beck wrote that both officers were justified in their approach and use of force.

According to Chief Beck’s report, Mr. Ford had been walking in an area known to have gang and drug activity. The officers believed Mr. Ford was walking away from a group of gang members and watched him place his hands into his waistband of his pants as he looked in the direction of the officers.

One officer told investigators that he had told his partner, “Let’s at least talk to him and have a consensual encounter,” according to Mr. Beck’s report. Mr. Ford then walked away “as fast as a person could possibly walk without running” and ducked between a vehicle and bushes. The officers told investigators that they believed he was getting rid of drugs.

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