L.A. Officer Wins 2-Year Battle to Clear His Name in Controversial Shooting of 13-Year-Old Driver

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To the outrage of community activists and some politicians, a Los Angeles officer who is the central figure in a nationally spotlighted police shooting has been exonerated of wrongdoing, with the help of findings from the Force Science Research Center.

LAPD Officer II Steven Garcia, accused of using excessive force in killing a 13-year-old African-American boy who was accelerating a stolen car toward him, had earlier been found “out of policy” in the shooting by the city’s Police Commission, a politically appointed civilian oversight body.

But last week [1/8/07], after a 9-day hearing, LAPD’s disciplinary Board of Rights ruled that Garcia’s shooting was fully justified and found him “not guilty,” therefore not deserving of punishment. In a 19-page “Rationale” for the finding, the Board made clear that it relied heavily on an analysis of the controversial encounter by Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the FSRC at Minnesota State University-Mankato.

The Board also cited a sophisticated, real-time reconstruction animation of the shooting created by Parris Ward, a technical advisor to FSRC, as a “valuable” part of the evidence “to support the finding of not guilty.”

In the Rationale, retired Capt. Bruce Crosley, chairman of the 3-person rights panel, stated that the Board “put aside any preconceived notions,” as well as “emotional and political factors,” and objectively pursued “as thorough, complete and exhaustive an examination of…this matter as has been conducted by any individual or body to date.”

The result, he said: “[W]e have determined that Officer Garcia responded reasonably….”

Next month it will be 2 years since Officer Steve Garcia and the suspect, Devin Brown, met in their deadly confrontation. At about 0330 on Feb. 6, 2005, Garcia and his patrol partner, Dana Grant, noticed a red Toyota Camry (later found to be stolen) being driven erratically, as if the operator were drugged or drunk.

After the driver ran a stop sign and refused to pull over, a 7-minute chase on city streets ensued. Then as the driver, later identified as young Brown, attempted a sharp right turn in a high-crime South LA neighborhood, he lost control of the car. The Camry bounced over a curb and came to stop against a wrought-iron fence.

Across the next few seconds, the intersection erupted in chaos:

  • Officer Grant bails out of the squad car’s driver seat and Garcia out on the passenger side and take cover behind their respective doors, Glock pistols drawn;
  • Simultaneously, a juvenile passenger in the Camry bolts from that vehicle and pulls from his waistband what Garcia thinks is probably a gun as he runs away from the scene;
  • Brown jams the Camry into reverse and guns it back toward the squad car, engine roaring, tires squealing;
  • Garcia on the exposed side of the squad backpedals toward the rear as Brown first smashes the Camry’s open passenger door into a light pole and then plows into the police unit, scraping backward along the passenger side with a deafening screech;
  • As he now moves laterally away from his unit trying to evade the Camry, Garcia fires 10 rounds at Brown at machine gun speed, hoping to stop him;
  • Brown, meantime, has jammed the car into second gear. Seven of Garcia’s rounds hit him. The car moves forward a bit and stops. Devin Brown is dead.
  • The confrontation is over. The nightmare battle by Garcia to save his career is just beginning.

The age and color of Devin Brown (whom the media identified as an “honor student”), plus the fact that no gun was found on him or in the Camry, virtually guaranteed a firestorm. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton jetted in to lead angry protests. The shooting became “the subject of several investigations, numerous inquiries and countless newspaper articles, television editorials and radio broadcasts,” in the words of the Board of Rights report.

A cascade of major developments left Garcia facing discouraging prospects:

1. Shortly after the incident and while under intense activist pressure, the department changed its force policy, essentially banning shooting at moving vehicles unless a deadly threat other than the vehicle itself is at hand. This restrictive revision ipso facto sent the message that firing at cars in circumstances like Garcia’s was an inappropriate use of deadly force.

2. The Los Angeles County DA declined to file criminal charges against Garcia, citing insufficient evidence, and the LAPD Use of Force Review Board found the shooting within policy as it existed at the time. Chief William Bratton agreed, noting that Garcia was legitimately in fear of his life.

However, a separate internal investigation within the department concluded that the officer was not in danger when he opened fire. He told investigators he shot at the Camry’s broad back window, but in fact–to his surprise, he said-evidence showed that his rounds crashed through the rear passenger-side window and through the open front passenger side where the door had been torn back by the utility pole. Therefore, investigators concluded, he had to have been well out of the path of the car and not in threat when he pulled the trigger.

Indeed, by methods still not clear, the internal investigators concluded that he was standing 10-15 feet to the side of the vehicle and aimed every shot. They posited that there had, in reality, been 2 shootings–1 from close to the rear of the Camry when Garcia was “recoiling” from the car coming backward and the other–wholly unjustified–from the vehicle’s side when he was “retaliating” for the alleged attempt to run him over.

3. The city’s Police Commission, an oversight group, also took issue with Garcia’s actions.

Appointed by the mayor, it’s members are all civilians, at least one of whom is affiliated with the ACLU. Only one Commission member has LE experience. Roughly a year after the shooting, the group voted 4-1 that Garcia’s insistence that he believed his life to be in danger “was not objectively reasonable.” In the Commission’s view, the shooting “violated department rules and warrants discipline.”

4. About 5 months after that, the Los Angeles City Council voted to settle a civil suit brought by Brown’s family through the law firm of the late Johnny Cochran. The Council handed the suspect’s survivors $1.5 million, reflecting apparently dim prospects that the case could be won in court.

The Police Commission is not empowered to mete out discipline. That responsibility falls to LAPD’s Board of Rights, which for this case consisted of Capt. Crosley, Capt. Nancy Lauer and Ann Reiss Lane, a civilian and former member of the Police Commission.

Garcia’s future rested with these 3.

“At the very minimum,” Crosley noted in the Board’s ultimate report, “this was a unique and challenging endeavor.” The Board “considered numerous witnesses and experts presented by both the department and the accused.” It examined “52 exhibits accepted into evidence.” And it made on-site visits to a police shed where the 2 involved vehicles were preserved and to the intersection where the shooting occurred.

Garcia’s attorneys, provided by the Los Angeles Police Protective League (the police union), were Michael Stone, who gained national prominence as a defense lawyer in the Rodney King case, and Gary Ingemunson. They built their persuasive case on the expertise of 4 key witnesses: Lewinski and Ward; James Trahin, an independent firearms examiner; and Michael Varat, an accident reconstructionist.

Using scientific reconstruction methods and the time-stamped record of radio calls made during the incident, the team was able to establish time frames for the encounter. From the moment the Camry started backing up until Devin Brown was shot dead at the wheel spanned a mere 4 seconds. The shooting itself took less than 2 seconds, Lewinski calculated, based on FSRC’s studies of officers’ performance in gunfights and Ward’s testing of Garcia at a range.

Lewinski testified before the Board that there would not have been time for 2 distinct shooting phases to occur, as the department’s internal investigation had speculated. For Garcia to have moved to the relatively distant and safe position the investigators conjured and to have shifted emotionally from “recoil” to “retaliation” mode would likely have taken 5 seconds or more, exceeding the total verified time of the encounter, Lewinski said.

Internal investigators had claimed that the Camry was backing up at only about 1-2 mph, allowing Garcia ample time to escape. But the reconstruction, aided by an interpretation of tire marks and the time frame, established that the vehicle actually reached a speed of 12 mph–rapid movement in the limited confines of the scene. Garcia’s position behind the squad’s passenger door was less than 1 1/2 car lengths from the rear of the Camry at the outset, placing him in imminent jeopardy.

A civilian eye witness–the only 1 of 3 nonpolice witnesses that the Board considered credible–testified that the Camry “backed up fast” as if Brown was “smashing the gas,” seemingly determined to strike Garcia. Two backup officers in the pursuit, who were on the scene, described the Camry’s engine revving at high pitch and tires screeching as the car lunged backward.

Brown was looking directly at him, Garcia testified, and as the officer tried to move out of the way it seemed that the juvenile adjusted the car to track him. During his years on the street, Garcia said, “I’ve thought about how to get out of the way of a vehicle so I wouldn’t have to shoot, but I never prepared for a vehicle hunting me down.”

Citing well-established psychological principles and FSRC studies, Lewinski told the Board that the noise, the movement, the angles, the tight proximity and tunnel vision on the oncoming vehicle all would have combined to make the car appear to Garcia to be even closer, faster and more ominous than it was.

From interviewing him, there was no doubt in Lewinski’s mind that the officer genuinely considered himself a dead man. Indeed, Garcia said that an image of his infant son flashed into his mind and he thought “I’m not going to be a father any more.”

FSRC experiments have clearly established that it takes time for an officer to make the decision to shoot, to begin shooting and then to perceive that a threat is over and to stop shooting.

This could account for why rounds that Garcia thought he was firing through the Camry’s back window actually entered the vehicle from its right side, Lewinski explained. Garcia was moving and the car was moving and without him realizing it their relative positions changed between the time he decided to shoot and the time the round actually impacted. Even once he perceived that the threat was over and decided to stop shooting, it would likely have taken him 2/3 of a second to do so, during which time as many as 3 “extra” rounds could have been fired, Lewinski said.

The Board’s Rationale characterized the testimony of Lewinski, “an internationally recognized expert on the topic of human performance in high-stress encounters,” as “informative and enlightening” and said it “clarified” important factors in the case.

Weighing across several days what he had to say, along with the physical evidence and the testimony of other witnesses, the Board concluded unanimously that Garcia had not violated LAPD’s use-of-force policy as it then existed.

“[O]ur decision has required that we put ourselves in Officer Garcia’s shoes and try to get inside his head to see what he saw, feel what he felt, and determine if his actions and decisions were indeed reasonable,” the Rationale stated. “Was Garcia’s perception that his life was in imminent danger a reasonable one? Virtually all the evidence presented…tells us that it was….Whether Devin Brown was trying to kill Officer Garcia or not is not the issue; but rather, did the officer reasonably believe his life was threatened? We believe…that the answer is yes….”

Initially the Board’s Rationale was kept confidential because police disciplinary proceedings in general have been considered private since a California Supreme Court ruling last year. However, in hopes of quieting an immediate and intense chorus of criticism from activists and certain city leaders who labeled the decision biased, unjustified and the consequence of a secret “star chamber” hearing, Garcia asked that the report be made public, which it has been.

Even so, the carping continues at this writing, with demands being made to give more disciplinary power to the civilian Police Commission.

One city councilman did speak out in defense of the Board’s exoneration. “I understand the concerns,” said Greig Smith. “But these are the same people who have been criticizing the Police Department for as long as I can remember, and no matter what we do they will not be satisfied.” Smith is a reserve officer on LAPD.

After the shooting, Garcia was transferred to a detective assignment where he remains today. Despite the ordeal of the last 2 years, he intends to continue his career in law enforcement.

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