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Experts say El Monte police officer's kick was unjustified

May 14, 2009 | 12:38 pm

Elmontebeating The decision by an El Monte police officer to kick a suspect in the face following a 40-minute pursuit was roundly criticized by policing experts today as inexcusable and unnecessary.

Video shot by at least two local television news stations shows the unidentified El Monte officer kicking 23-year-old Richard Rodriguez in the face after Rodriguez had put his hands up and fell to the ground in a prone position with his arms above his head.

Samuel Walker, a criminology professor at the University of Nebraska and an expert in police oversight and force, said the officer's kick to the head was “unprovoked and unnecessary," calling the actions "one of the worst incidents of this kind that I've seen."

“The person on the ground was surrendering. There was no threat [seen] in this video,” said Walker.

Geoffrey P. Alpert, professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, said that, while video may miss some things, it appears to show “that the officer lost control.”

“It appears that the suspect was motionless, under control and nonthreatening,” Alpert said. “If that’s the case, what the officer did was totally outrageous. From what we see, he overreacted.”

El Monte police say Rodriguez is an El Monte Flores gang member who has been in and out of prison for violence- and narcotics-related crimes since 2006.

Rodriguez, who uses the street names  “Richie Boy” and “Turtle,” was convicted in March 2006 of misdemeanor possession of a switchblade and sentenced to 20 days in jail and three years' probation, say police and prosecutors.

 A month later, in April 2006, he was convicted of felony eluding and fleeing from police officers and stealing a car and was sentenced to 16 months in state prison. Records show he again was convicted, in May 2007, of possession of a controlled substance, methamphetamine — and sentenced to 16 months in state prison.

El Monte police have called a 3 p.m. news conference to further explain the incident. [Updated at 2 p.m.: The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has taken over the investigation of the incident.]

El Monte Councilwoman Patricia Wallach, who has been a critic of the police department in the past, said she is hoping for "some kind of explanation for the officer’s action.” 

 “We are waiting for reports before we make specific comments on what occurred,” said Wallach.

The ACLU of Southern California, however, has called for the immediate suspension of the officer and has urged the Los Angeles County district attorney's office to conduct a swift criminal investigation into the officer's actions.

"This video is truly chilling in the clarity with which it captures an egregious example of police abuse. It is perfectly clear that the suspect was prone on a grassy lawn, limbs extended, and lying still," said a statement issued by Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. "The officer had a gun drawn and kicked him extremely hard in the head. That kick served no law enforcement purpose. It was unlawful punishment, apparently for leading the police on a pursuit."

David A. Klinger, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri and a former Los Angeles Police Department officer, said the nature of video, as a “two-dimensional representation,” leaves out a lot of context that could explain the officer's decision-making.

Still, the officer’s tactical approach also raised questions in the incident, he said.

“You have an individual who is compliant,” Klinger said. “I don’t understand why an officer would want to get so close to a suspect. There’s no need [in that situation].”

Alpert noted that pursuits evolve quickly in adrenaline-pumping situations, like a chase of a parolee, and on-the-ground context is important from what the officer hears on the radio about the call, the suspect’s background, whether the suspects are armed and if the officer sees or hears “something that we don’t see.”

Walker said that while some may be inclined to excuse the conduct in light of the suspect's criminal history, "it is no excuse,” because the suspect was not a threat.

The chase and its aftermath were a classic case of “adrenaline policing,” Walker said. He said that advanced police departments with modern training techniques take this into account by training their officers to avoid allowing adrenaline to overcome tactics.

--Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton

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