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Council rejects $4.5-million settlement in LAPD shooting

April 11, 2012 |  3:52 pm

The Los Angeles City Council has rejected a proposed $4.5-million payout to a man who was shot by police as he fled a drive-by shooting.

The payment would have settled a lawsuit that Robert Contreras brought against the city for the 2005 shooting, which left him paralyzed.

A jury in the case decided that the officers used excessive force because Contreras was unarmed when he was shot. Fearing that the jury could order the city to pay Contreras $8 million to $12 million, lawyers for the city urged the council to accept the settlement deal.

But with an 8-4 vote, the council rejected the recommended settlement. Instead, it will now await the jury's decision.

The case stems from an incident in September 2005, when several officers on patrol in South L.A. responded to a report of a nearby shooting. Witnesses pointed to a white van leaving the scene, saying the people inside had unloaded a volley of gunfire while driving by.

After a brief pursuit, the three men inside the van jumped out and scattered. Officers Julio Benevides and Mario Flores chased after Contreras, who was then 19.

The officers, who told investigators they saw a gun in Contreras' hand as he bolted, shot him multiple times in the side and back when he allegedly turned toward them with an object in his hand. It turned out to be a cellphone. No gun was found.

Following an internal investigation, the officers were cleared of wrongdoing by an independent board that oversees the LAPD.

Contreras, who now is a quadriplegic with some use of his arms, was convicted in 2009 for his role in the drive-by shooting and sentenced to seven years in state prison. Released on parole last year, he filed a federal lawsuit, accusing the officers of excessive force and violating his civil rights.

During the February trial, U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson did not allow jurors to hear several pieces of information that might have swayed their decision. For example, they did not know that Contreras had been convicted in the drive-by, that he was a known member of the Florencia 13 gang, or that one of the other men in the van told investigators that Contreras got out of the vehicle armed with a gun, according to records obtained by The Times.

When lawyers from the city attorney's office presented the proposed payout, Councilman Paul Krekorian angrily rejected it, telling The Times that it "sends a terrible message to police officers ... not just the two officers involved, but to every officer in the LAPD, who could be faced with the same sort of situation."

Krekorian declined to comment following the vote, saying he was not permitted to discuss it since the matter was decided during a confidential meeting.

Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who voted in favor of the settlement, called it a necessary “business decision” that would keep the city’s budget – already facing a $220-million shortfall – from incurring more damage in the future.

Parks predicted the city will end up paying Contreras considerably more in damages as a result of Wednesday’s vote.

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-- Joel Rubin and David Zahniser at L.A. City Hall

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