Los Angeles police panel says officer's actions in man's death unjustified

The Los Angeles Police Commission found that an officer wrongly approached and stopped a 25-year-old black man last year ultimately leading to the fatal close-range shooting and therefore violated department policy, according to a report released late Tuesday.

The commission voted unanimously during a closed session meeting Tuesday, finding that Officer Sharlton Wampler was unjustified in the August shooting of Ezell Ford but Officer Antonio Villegas was justified.

The commission found that the Wampler violated policy in every aspect they examined, from the way he made contact with Ford to the drawing of his weapon and the use of lethal and nonlethal force. Villegas was found in violation in only one area -- an earlier drawing of a gun before the final use of deadly force.

Their analysis, released hours later, demonstrated the first application on an updated use of force policy, tweaked last year to better mirror language in a California Supreme Court decision.

It requires reviewers to examine whether problematic decisions or actions by officers ultimately caused the confrontations that ended in the use of deadly force.

The commission looked at the "totality" of circumstances, not just the moment deadly force was used, and it found that "deficient tactics used by (Wampler) and the legally inappropriate detention of (Ford) led to the subsequent altercation, rendered the use of deadly force unreasonable and out of policy."

Beck had recommended the officers' actions be ruled justified and said in a statement late Tuesday, "I respect the process and the decision made."

Wampler and Villegas had been assigned to nonfield administrative duties before the decision. It was unclear whether that will now change.

Ford's mother, Tritobia Ford, had pleaded to commissioners amid hours of sometimes tense public comment to find the officers' actions improper.

"Because he walked away ... they killed him," Ford said. "They got mad, they got angry. Ezell did not understand. Ezell had the thought process of an 8- or a 10-year-old. He was a baby, he was my baby."

The commission's finding means the case now goes to the Police Department's internal affairs group. The group's findings, which will likely take months, will then be forwarded to Beck, who determines what discipline the officers would face. Any decision on criminal charges would come from the district attorney.

Attorney Steven Lerman, who represents Ford's family, said he believed both officers acted outside policy. For Wampler, the officer who initiated the contact, the decision was a "no-brainer," he said.

"It is a pitiful example of police gone wrong," Lerman said. "They never should have stopped the guy."

Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said the decision would make officers less likely to engage in aggressive police work or proactive policing.

"I'm shocked that they came up with that decision," Lally said. "Ford attempted to take the gun away from Officer Wampler, and once he made that decision to try to get that, he escalated (it). The officers have every right to defend themselves."

An attorney representing the two officers could not be immediately reached late Tuesday.

Mayor Eric Garcetti met with the Ford family for 45 minutes after the decision and spoke with Ford's mother about her loss.

At a news conference, he said the decision shows that "we have a system that can work. Every life matters, but due process matters as well."

Beck and the watchdog found that evidence supported the officers' contention that Ford was shot after trying to grab an officer's gun. That evidence included Ford's DNA on Wamper's holster. A previously released autopsy report appeared to support the officers' account.

According to the LAPD, Ford was acting suspiciously when he caught officers' attention in August.

The police commission report quotes the officers describing Ford as looking in their direction, walking away quickly, and having his hands in his waistband area. It also said Ford was in a gang area and in the vicinity of a group of gang members, though they had not seen him with them.

The incident escalated after Ford refused to talk to them and continued to walk away. Wampler tried to get close enough to handcuff Ford.

The department said Ford then knocked Wampler to the ground, grappling for his holstered weapon when Villegas fired two shots.

Wampler pulled out a backup gun and shot Ford in the back.