Feds investigate Inglewood police after officer-involved shootings

The U.S. Justice Department launches a review after officers last year shot and killed four people — three unarmed — within four months.

By Ari B. Bloomekatz and Jack Leonard, Times
March 13, 2009

The U.S. Department of Justice has launched an investigation into the Inglewood Police Department in the wake of several officer-involved shootings of unarmed suspects and other incidents in which the agency has been accused of using excessive force.

A Justice Department spokeswoman described the investigation as a “pattern or practice” inquiry into the Police Department that is being handled by the federal agency’s civil rights division in Washington.

The probe marks the second ongoing investigation into the department, which was the focus of community protests last year when officers shot and killed four people — three of them unarmed — in the span of four months. The L.A. County Office of Independent Review, which monitors the Sheriff’s Department, began probing the Police Department’s tactics last year at the request of the city.

The announcement also comes less than three months after a Times investigation found that Inglewood police officers repeatedly resorted to physical or deadly force in the last several years against suspects who were unarmed or accused of minor offenses.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who was among several politicians who called for an outside investigation into possible police misconduct, said she was gratified by the Justice Department’s decision.

“I have been extremely concerned about the alarming number of police-involved shootings in Inglewood,” she said in a statement Thursday.

City officials said federal investigators plan to examine past procedures and tactics involving force used by Inglewood officers.

“We will cooperate completely in all aspects of this investigation,” Inglewood Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said in a statement. “We have been at work for months in implementing reforms aimed at improving how our officers go about their jobs.”

The Justice Department alerted the city by letter Wednesday afternoon that the agency was beginning a review of the department, Lt. Mike McBride said.

The purpose of such reviews is to ensure proper management and oversight at police departments and, if needed, to bring federal lawsuits to pressure local authorities into reforming their operations.

The L.A. County district attorney’s office is also reviewing each of the shootings for possible criminal charges against the officers — as it does for all police shootings in the county that result in injuries or death.

Since 2003, Inglewood police have shot and killed 11 people, five of them unarmed, according to law enforcement records reviewed by The Times. Among them was Jule Dexter.

Dexter was shot in the back and the head in June 2005 after being detained for drinking in public. The officer who fired the shots said Dexter was slow to obey an order to remove his hands from his pockets and appeared to fumble with what the officer feared was a weapon.

But witnesses said Dexter, 27, was shot as he reached to pull up his slipping pants. The city paid $725,000 to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Dexter’s family. The officer was suspended for 16 days.

That shooting, along with others, prompted some officers to complain about the department’s policy on when to shoot and about a lack of training.

In addition, the department has been criticized over its use of electric stun guns. The Times found that two Inglewood officers were involved in shooting unarmed suspects with Tasers four times in five weeks.

Waters called on the Justice Department to intervene after the Aug. 31 killing of Eddie Felix Franco, a 56-year-old homeless man who had a realistic-looking toy gun in his waistband. Authorities said officers fired at least 47 rounds at Franco when he appeared to reach for the gun. A nearby motorist was struck and grazed in the head by one of the bullets.

Franco was the fourth person killed in as many months. The others were:

* Michael Byoune, 19, who was killed on Mother’s Day, May 11, after he went to a hamburger stand with friends. Police officials said officers believed they had come under fire when they killed Byoune and wounded his two friends. None of the men were armed.

* Ruben Walton Ortega, 23, an alleged gang member who was shot and killed July 1 by an officer who said Ortega reached into his waistband as he ran from police. He was unarmed. Last week, prosecutors concluded that the officer “honestly believed he was in imminent danger” when he opened fire.

* Kevin Wicks, 38, a postal worker who was killed inside his home July 21 when police said he raised a gun at Officer Brian Ragan, who was responding to a report of a family disturbance in Wicks’ apartment complex. Ragan was also one of two officers involved in Byoune’s shooting and remains on paid leave, McBride said.

Inglewood Councilman Daniel Tabor said he believed the Justice Department would find that the city had taken swift measures to reform police training after last year’s shootings.

About 70% of the agency’s 191 officers have been enrolled in a 120-hour training program to improve tactics, according to the department.

Adrianne Sears, chairwoman of the Inglewood Citizen Police Oversight Commission, said she hoped that the Justice Department’s investigation would “help to restore the public’s trust in our department.”

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