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Mayor reverses stance on LAPD shooting settlement

April 4, 2012 |  5:32 pm

A day after saying the city should pay $4.5 million in taxpayer money to settle a lawsuit with a convicted felon shot by police, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa reversed himself Wednesday, saying the payout should not be made.

The Times reported Tuesday that the City Council must decide whether to approve a settlement deal with Robert Contreras, who was left paralyzed when police shot him after he fled the scene of a drive-by shooting.

Contreras was shot multiple times when he allegedly turned toward officers in a dark driveway with an object in his hand they believed was a gun. The object turned out to be a cellphone and no gun was found.

Contreras 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 two officers who shot him of excessive force and violating his civil rights. Although the officers were cleared of wrongdoing by an independent board that oversees the LAPD, when a jury heard the case in February it found unanimously that the officers had been wrong to shoot Contreras.

The U.S. district judge who presided over the trial did not allow jurors to hear several pieces of information that may have swayed their decision. Among other things, they did not know Contreras had been convicted in the drive-by or that one of the other men involved in the drive-by shooting told investigators Contreras bolted from the vehicle armed with a gun.

Before jurors decided on how much money in damages the city should pay Contreras, lawyers for the city and Contreras agreed to the $4.5-million settlement. The Council is expected to vote on the deal on Tuesday.

Councilmember Paul Krekorian objected angrily to the proposed payout, saying it would send “a terrible message” if the city voluntarily paid Contreras for a shooting that police officials concluded was justified.

Krekorian chairs the Council's Budget and Finance Committee, which voted this week to recommend the full council reject the settlement.

But, citing the financial risk and the low likelihood that an appeals court would side with the city, officials from the city attorney’s office recommended the council approve the settlement, according to records. In an interview, Chief Deputy City Atty. William Carter said that given Contreras’s medical expenses and suffering, a jury would likely deliver a verdict at least twice as large as the settlement amount.

Villaraigosa’s appointee on a panel that reviews such settlement deals sided with the city attorney. And when The Times made inquiries about the case yesterday, an aide to the mayor said Villaraigosa still believed that, while unpalatable, the payout was the prudent move.

Following The Times article and a conversation with Krekorian Wednesday morning, the mayor changed his stance. Now, said Peter Sanders, the mayor’s press secretary, “We'd rather take our chances on appeal.”

An attorney for Contreras could not be reached for comment.

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--Joel Rubin (twitter.com/joelrubin)

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