An independent civilian review board in Los Angeles censured an officer involved in last year's fatal shooting of Ezell Ford, an unarmed and mentally ill black man, for his decision to draw and use his gun. The second officer faced reprimand for deciding to draw his gun when he did, but was found to have acted reasonably when the struggle between Ford and the officers, Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas, turned violent. The Los Angeles Police Commission's ruling opens both officers to the possibility of suspension from the force. After a heated public hearing in which community members testified against police aggression, the five-person panel signaled public disapproval of the officers' actions Tuesday afternoon, marking a lukewarm victory for Ford's family in an emotional case that has provoked widespread protests against what activists say are racially biased police practices in Los Angeles.
Ford, who his mother says had the mental abilities of an eight- or 10-year-old, had been diagnosed with both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Officers Wampler and Villegas approached him on Aug. 11, 2014, when he was walking home. After stopping him, the encounter turned into a struggle, with officers claiming that Ford wrestled for control of one of the officer’s guns. In response, Wampler and Villegas fired three shots at him, one of which struck Ford in the back.
"Today’s decision marks the first time since the murder of my son that an independent organization charged with overseeing the police department has strongly, on the record, stated that what happened to Ezell was wrong,” Tritobia Ford said at a press conference Tuesday night, according to local radio station KPCC.
Ford’s death came two days after a white officer shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, and has served as a local flashpoint for a broader national conversation about racial bias, police brutality and the rabid incarceration of black youth. The case has divided the city leadership and exposed Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to substantial community pushback and protests.
In his report to the commission, L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck asserted that both officers had acted reasonably and within departmental guidelines and recommended that the civilian board absolve them of wrongdoing. An independent inspector general also lobbied for Wampler and Villegas to be let off the hook because the 25-year-old Ford allegedly reached for an officer's gun.
The commission had to examine three separate components of the officers' behavior during the encounter with Ford for misconduct: first, the officers’ decision to draw their weapons; second, their use of deadly force; and third, their tactics throughout the incident.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the commission found Wampler, the more senior officer, acted wrongly by drawing his weapon on Ford in the first place, by choosing to fire at the unarmed man and by using inappropriate tactics. In turn, his younger partner, Villegas, was only faulted for drawing his firearm early in the incident but was found justified in his decision to use the gun later. The scratches found on Ford’s and the officer’s hands and the DNA evidence on one of the guns suggested that Ford and the officers had grappled over a gun, the Times reported.
The commission announced its decision Tuesday afternoon after a long, fraught morning of public testimony interrupted by occasional shouts from protestors. At one point, the commission members walked out of the hearing when a speaker refused to respect the two-minute time limit but returned after the crowd had quieted.
The hearing room felt silent, however, as Tritobia Ford took center stage to testify about her son’s death and call for justice:
I’m asking you. I’m begging you. Please. Please. He wanted to live.
Following the commission’s announcement, Garcetti praised the process for doing what its job and providing essential structural oversight for the police force.
“Today the system worked the way it is supposed to with an impartial civilian review board,” he said at a news conference at city hall Tuesday, The New York Times reports.
But attorney Gary Fullerton, whose firm is representing the two officers, criticized the civilian review board for bowing to public pressure rather than objectively weighing the facts of the case.
“What we're concerned about is the commission succumbed to the pressure of the mob,” he told the LA Times. “It’s a shame that police officers can’t do their job and protect their lives.”
Both officers now face the possibility of suspension from the force. After Tuesday’s decision, it is up to Chief Beck to decide whether and how to punish the officers, either with retraining, with suspension, or by firing them outright. But as the LA Times notes, Beck has irritated the community in the past for refusing to discipline or only giving written warnings to officers that the civilian review board finds responsible for misconduct in shooting cases where he disagrees with the decision. And with an expansive police rights law in place, how the police chief ultimately chooses to punish Wampler and Villegas will remain confidential.
In turn, Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey is still considering whether or not to charge either of the officers with criminal offenses for Ford’s death.
The civilian review board’s decision publicly suggests that something may be wrong with the LAPD's practices. Ford was just one of 18 people killed by LAPD officers last year. As The Guardian reported in its investigation, the Los Angeles department was the single most lethal police force in the U.S. in 2015.
And it is helpful to acknowledge that our examinations of police officers' use of fatal force shouldn’t just look at the last decision to pull the trigger, but must involve all the actions that the officers took to create or aggravate those situations in the first place. After all, it is still unclear why the police stopped Ford at all.
But with little guarantee of punishment for either Wampler or Villegas, it is hard to see how the civilian review board’s decision will have much of an impact.
Images: Getty Images (5)