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L.A. County deputies' shootings of unarmed people raise concerns

September 22, 2011 |  1:57 pm

Photo: Merrick Bobb has written reports examining the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

Almost half of all people shot at by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies after they reached for their waistbands turned out to be unarmed, according to a study released Thursday analyzing six years of shooting data.

“Waistband shootings” are particularly controversial because the justification for the shootings can conceivably be fabricated after the fact, according to the county monitor’s report. The monitor was careful to point out that the report wasn’t making the case deputies were being dishonest, simply that the spike in those shootings left the department vulnerable to criticism.

Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the county Board of Supervisors, also found a rise in shootings in which deputies didn’t see an actual gun before firing. In those cases, the person may have had a weapon on them, but never brandished it.

Those shootings spiked by 50% last year, according to the report. Last year also had the highest proportion of people shot by deputies who turned out to be unarmed altogether.

The Sheriff's Department already requires its patrol deputies to do scenario-based shooting training every two years. According to the report, though, almost a third of deputies who shot at people before seeing an actual gun failed to meet that training requirement.

According to the report, the number of officer-involved shootings generally correlates with the criminal homicide rate. But in the last two years, as Los Angeles County law enforcement officials have boasted falling homicide rates, the number of shootings involving sheriff's deputies has gone up.

In one case, deputies came across a narcotics suspect sitting in his car outside his house. When the 35-year-old saw the deputies, he appeared to reach under his seat. One of the deputies thought he saw a gun, covered by a piece of cloth. The man then sat up, holding the object to his chest, prompting the deputy to shoot him in his torso. The man was killed but no drugs or weapons were found, only a pair of jeans. The county eventually paid out $750,000 to the victim’s family.

The analysis also found that 61% of those shot at by deputies were Latino, 29% black and 10% white. Even compared to Sheriff's Department arrest rates, Latinos and blacks are overrepresented.

In shootings in which deputies shot at a person before seeing an actual gun, all but two of the people  were black or Latino.

The report expressed “deep concerns” specifically with the sheriff’s Century Station, one of the rougher swaths of the department’s jurisdiction, spanning Lynwood and unincorporated areas of Florence, Firestone, Walnut Park, Willowbrook and Athens Park.

Over the last 15 years, that station’s deputies have fired their guns the most, almost twice as much as the next closest station. More than a quarter of sheriff's deputies who have been involved in multiple shootings work at Century, according to the report, even though the station only represents 8% of the department’s sworn patrol.

Sheriff Lee Baca just returned from a trip to Israel on Thursday and needs to review the report before the department gives its response, according to a spokesman.

Among the report’s other findings:

-- Deputies firing their guns off duty are more likely to be fresh out of the academy. More than half of off-duty shootings involved deputies with less than three years on the job.

-- Deputies shooting at animals spiked recently, with 62 last year, more than double the number of several years before.

-- All deputies involved in multiple shootings in recent years were men.


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Photo: Merrick Bobb has written reports examining the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times