Eight Los Angeles police officers who opened fire on two women delivering newspapers in a pickup truck during the hunt for Christopher Dorner violated the LAPD's policy on using deadly force, the department's oversight body found Tuesday.
In making its ruling, the Police Commission followed the recommendation of LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, who faulted the officers for jumping to the conclusion that Dorner was in the truck. Beck said the officers compounded their mistake by shooting in one another's direction with an unrestrained barrage of gunfire.
Reports made public Tuesday offered new details of the hours that led up to the shooting and how it erupted into a wild, one-sided firefight in which the officers fired shotguns and handguns more than 100 times. One woman was shot twice in the back; her daughter received superficial wounds.
"This was a tragic cascade of circumstance that led to an inaccurate conclusion by the officers," Beck said at a news conference after the commission's action. "I sympathize with the officers, but I have a very high standard for the application of deadly force, and the shooting did not meet that standard."
The findings come after months of internal debate over whether the officers should be excused in light of the intense pressure they were under as they kept watch for Dorner, a former LAPD officer who had killed three people and vowed more bloodshed as he sought vengeance against the law enforcement officials he blamed for his firing.
A panel of high-ranking police officials that reviewed the shooting urged Beck to clear the officers of wrongdoing, according to several sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
Beck and the commission acknowledged the extreme circumstances surrounding the shooting, but ultimately rejected the officers' explanations for why they opened fire.
Some of the officers told investigators that they thought they saw the truck's driver armed with a gun. Others said they mistook gunfire from fellow officers that was hitting the truck as coming from inside the truck. Beck came down particularly hard on officers who couldn't explain why they continued to fire.
One officer told investigators that he saw "no signs, no indication of any movement" inside the truck, but he kept shooting because of all the gunfire erupting around him. “I didn’t know it was police fire. I didn’t know if it was suspect fire,” he said, according to Beck’s report.
The shooting occurred in the predawn darkness of Feb. 7 last year, as a massive search for Dorner was underway. Eight patrol officers and a sergeant from the department's Hollywood Division had been dispatched to a quiet residential neighborhood in Torrance with orders to guard the home of a captain who had been involved in the decision to fire Dorner for dishonesty and other misconduct.
Working in pairs, the officers spread out, Beck said in his report. Two took up a post in a driveway several houses down the street, while another pair went several houses in the other direction. Others set up in the backyard and in the garage of the captain's house, according to the chief's report.
The department has refused to identify the officers involved in the shooting.
Of the nine officers guarding the house, only one did not fire his weapon. A 10th officer who was sent to deliver supplies to the officers also did not shoot.
While guarding the house, the officers received word that Dorner had escaped a gun battle with two LAPD officers in Corona and ambushed two Riverside police officers as they sat in their patrol car at a traffic light. One of the Riverside officers was killed and the other was badly wounded. Then, shortly before 4:30 a.m., a report came over the officers' radios that a pickup matching Dorner's had been seen several miles away from the captain's home, heading in an unknown direction.
About 45 minutes later, a blue Toyota Tacoma with tinted rear windows turned onto the captain's street. Behind the wheel was 47-year-old Margie Carranza. Her mother, Emma Hernandez, sat in the back seat. The women were delivering newspapers to homes in the area — Hernandez handed papers to her daughter, who tossed them out the window onto driveways while driving slowly.
The two officers positioned down the street from the captain's house saw the pickup first. "We got a truck headed in our direction," one of them reported to the others over the radio, according to Beck's report.
The officers left their patrol car and took cover behind its open doors as Carranza made her way toward them. One of the officers saw the license plate on the truck began with "8D," which was the same as Dorner's, and relayed the information to his partner, the report said.
Carranza, meanwhile, was approaching her next customer's house when she noticed a police car in the driveway with its doors open and no officers around, she told investigators. She tossed a folded paper wrapped in plastic onto the driveway. It landed on the pavement with a smack. The shooting began.
One officer described the sound as a "pop" and said he saw a flash of light inside the truck that he took to be a gun firing. He fired two shots at the truck. Carranza sped up the street and the officer fired twice more.
Beck dismissed the officer's claim that the sound of the newspaper hitting the driveway sounded like a gunshot. "Assessing that perception objectively," Beck wrote, "I do not believe it to be a reasonable one."
He further faulted the officer and his partner for failing to recognize that the women's truck, while similar to Dorner's, was a different color and model, and was missing the oversized tires and ski racks that the officers had been told Dorner had on his vehicle.
From those first shots, a barrage of gunfire followed.
Two other officers returning in their patrol car from a break witnessed the first officer shooting and pulled up about 90 feet behind Carranza's truck as it came to a stop in front of the captain's house. They were joined quickly by the first two officers and together the four unloaded a hail of gunfire on the truck. One of the officers fired 28 times, while another did not fire at all.
In turn, the sergeant and other officers positioned at the captain's house and further up the street joined the firefight. One of the officers up the street told investigators he assumed the bullets whizzing by were from Dorner because the officer believed his fellow officers wouldn't put him in danger by firing in his direction.
Hernandez was hit twice in the back; Carranza sustained superficial wounds. The women have agreed to a $4.2-million settlement with the city.
Beck will now decide any punishment for the officers. He could suspend the officers, or issue warnings and order them to undergo retraining. If Beck wants any of the officers fired, he must send them to discipline hearings.
The chief also questioned whether the officers, who were relatively young and lacked specialized training, should have been guarding the house in the first place. A better trained and equipped team was on the scene earlier, but a supervisor replaced them with regular patrol officers. Although Beck said he understood the challenges of pulling together teams of officers to guard dozens of Dorner's potential targets, he questioned the supervisor's decision.
Beck also criticized the police officials responsible for the security teams because they failed to give the officers under their command a plan for how to protect the house and respond to threats.
The chief and the commission declined to make a determination about whether the supervisors violated department policies. Their decision led to clashes in recent months with Alex Bustamante, the commission's inspector general, who wanted Beck to look further up the chain of command, the department sources said.
The commission Tuesday instructed the department to further investigate the role that higher-ranking officers played in the shooting.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun