LOS ANGELES » The Los Angeles police chief must answer questions about a high-profile officer-involved shooting of a black man last year, a federal judge ruled Monday, citing contradictions between the chief’s statements and a commission’s finding that the shooting wasn’t justified.
Police Chief Charlie Beck will have to take queries, in a formal deposition, from the attorney for the family of 25-year-old Ezell Ford, who was killed by police in August. Ford’s parents are suing the city, the department and the officers involved.
Magistrate Judge Margaret Nagle found Ford’s shooting was conspicuous enough that Beck should speak to contradictory findings about whether it was within policy.
Last month, the Los Angeles Police Commission found that officers had no reason to stop and question Ford, and that a violation of department policy led to an altercation that ended with Ford’s death. Beck has said the officers in the shooting acted appropriately.
"This is not the ordinary case," Nagle said. "It’s a high-profile, high-visibility case, and whether the policy of the policymaker — the police commission — is being enforced or implemented appropriately, I think is something on which Chief Beck can, and in this case should, be questioned."
Ford’s shooting prompted months of peaceful protests in Los Angeles, though they were far smaller than those held in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore following the deaths of black men in police encounters.
In August, Los Angeles police Officers Sharlton Wampler and Officer Antonio Villegas decided to stop Ford because he appeared nervous and was walking away with his hands in his pockets, according to a report by the police commission.
Wampler said he thought Ford might have been hiding drugs and told him to stop for questioning. The officers said Ford looked in their direction and walked away quickly with his hands in his waistband area.
A struggle ensued when Wampler tried to handcuff Ford, who knocked the officer to the ground and grabbed for his gun, the officers said. Villegas fired two shots, and Wampler said he pulled out a backup gun and shot Ford in the back.
The police commission found Wampler violated policy with his initial efforts to stop Ford, and therefore the shooting was not justified. Villegas was wrong to draw his weapon but acted appropriately in firing it because he believed Wampler’s life was in danger, the commission found.
Denise Zimmerman, the attorney representing the city in the family’s lawsuit, argued Beck shouldn’t have to face any questions in a deposition because he wasn’t involved in the shooting or the subsequent investigation.
Attorney Federico Sayre, who is representing Ford’s parents, said after the judge’s ruling that the "momentum has shifted in this case."
"The police commission decision was a monumental win — this just continues the movement in that direction," Sayre said. "Chief Beck is like any other citizen. He has to answer for what he has said."