Jury awards $3.2 million to woman shot by LAPD
A federal jury has handed down the latest multimillion-dollar verdict against the Los Angeles Police Department, finding officers were “malicious” and excessive when they shot a mentally ill woman and then used a stun gun on her.
The $3.2-million award delivered Friday in U.S. District Court adds to a long string of verdicts and settlements in police-related cases that have cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over the last decade. It comes as LAPD officials struggle to find ways to slow the stream of lawsuits filed against officers each year.
The current case stems from a September 2009 confrontation between two officers and Valerie Allen, then a 37-year-old woman with bipolar disorder. Despite treating her condition with medication, Allen had fallen into a manic episode, one of her attorneys said, and wandered city streets for hours throughout the night.
Shortly after dawn, a passerby saw Allen wearing only a shirt and talking incoherently in Los Feliz. He flagged down Officer Brent Houlihan, a veteran cop with about 15 years in the department, and his rookie partner, Nam Phan.
When the officers pulled up alongside Allen, she rushed up to the patrol car and banged on Phan’s passenger-side window before running away, according to accounts provided by the department and Allen’s attorneys.
Ignoring the officers’ orders to get on the ground, Allen climbed over an iron gate into the backyard of a house, where she threatened to kill a woman who was watching from a nearby window and threw a metal cart at other neighbors, according to police. She also turned on a garden hose and sprayed water in Houlihan’s direction as Phan walked through the house to get into the yard. When he appeared, Allen jumped back over the fence, according to the accounts of the shooting.
In a narrow passageway between a house and a wall, the officers confronted Allen, who continued to scream and talk without making sense. In testimony, Houlihan claimed he told Phan to draw his Taser, but Phan said he didn’t hear the order. Instead, the young officer approached Allen.
At some point, according to the police account, Allen picked up a wooden stake, struck Phan and knocked him to the ground. Saying he feared Allen could kill or badly injure his partner, Houlihan shot Allen three times in the chest, stomach and arm.
Other officers who arrived at the scene after the shooting told investigators that despite bleeding profusely, Allen continued to flail around on the ground and refused to be handcuffed. Officer Joseph Bezak fired his Taser on Allen, and other officers pinned her to the ground, police said.
When asked by The Times for comment, police Chief Charlie Beck issued a strong defense of the officers.
“I don't expect my officers to be hurt or killed by someone before they act,” he said in a prepared statement. “I stand by the actions of our officers completely.”
He noted that an internal review by the department and one by the LAPD’s civilian oversight board concluded the officers acted reasonably.
Martin Stanley, one of Allen’s attorneys, rejected that idea. He faulted the officers for continuing to pursue Allen instead of keeping her contained in the yard and summoning additional officers or one of the mental health experts the department makes available to assist in such scenarios.
“This was too aggressive a stance for officers to take with a woman who was clearly mentally ill and had no weapons, no ability to hurt anybody,” Stanley said. “Chasing this woman was the worse thing they could have done. It only confirmed her fears that the police were trying to hurt her.”
Stanley also challenged the officers’ claim that Allen resisted arrest after being shot. Medical experts testified during the trial that the wound she suffered to her arm would have made it impossible, he said.
In reaching their decision, jurors found that Houlihan’s and Bezak’s actions were “malicious" and that they used excessive force, Stanley said.
Houlihan, Phan and Bezak did not respond to requests for comment.
The Allen incident was not the first time Houlihan has been involved in a controversial shooting. In 1997, shortly after joining the LAPD, he was one of two officers to fatally fire on a distraught man who was stabbing himself in the city’s Jordan Downs housing project. The killing led to angry protests by residents who challenged the officers’ claims that the man had made threatening moves toward them.
The Allen verdict underscores the risk and challenges the city faces when deciding how to handle the scores of lawsuits filed against the LAPD each year. In this case, attorneys for the city believed -- wrongly -- that they would win at trial and so refused to settle the case, according to people with knowledge of the case.
Often, however, elected city officials approve settlements to avoid the chance of losing a larger verdict despite protests from police officials that their officers did nothing wrong.
And although he supported the officers in this case, the large verdict is certain to increase the pressure Beck has come under in recent years from elected officials and the Police Commission to address the millions of dollars police lawsuits cost the city each year. Though much of the cost arises from traffic accidents caused by officers and internal workplace lawsuits between officers, claims of civil rights violations and excessive force such as Allen’s are another costly category.
As part of his response, Beck hired a former city attorney to fill a new position that tracks lawsuits against the department and coordinates the LAPD’s response. It is not clear if the move has made much of an impact, if any, police officials have said.
-- Joel Rubin
Photo: LAPD Chief Charlie Beck in a 2011 file photo. Credit: Anne Cusack /Los Angeles Times