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2 years later, shooting of Ezell Ford still mired in controversy

A portrait of Ezell Ford, killed by LAPD officers in August near this spot, is on the wall of a market at 65th Street and Broadway in South Los Angeles
Sharon McNary/KPCC
A portrait of Ezell Ford, killed by LAPD officers in August 2014 near this spot, is on the wall of a market at 65th Street and Broadway in South Los Angeles

Nearly two years after Los Angeles Police Department officers shot and killed Ezell Ford, his family and the officers who fired the fatal shots are still in limbo about what will happen to both sides' claims — the officers' allegations they did nothing wrong and the family's claims that Ford’s civil rights were violated.

Prosecutors have been reviewing the evidence for more than a year and have yet to make a determination about whether the officers committed a crime. At the same time, the officers are complaining their careers are stalled and a lawsuit filed by Ford’s family has yet to reach trial.

“Two years later there’s still no discipline, there’s still no charges, the officers are still working," Tritobia Ford, Ezell Ford's mother told KPCC on Thursday.

In their own lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court this week, LAPD Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas alleged they’re being unfairly held back despite LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s finding that they acted appropriately. They claimed the L.A. Police Commission, which found the shooting out of policy, is “an inexperienced group of political appointees” without the knowledge to make that decision.

“We’re going to review the complaint,”said Rob Wilcox of the City Attorney’s office. The LAPD and the police commission declined to comment on the officers’ lawsuit.

Ford’s shooting has become a flashpoint for all kinds of controversies surrounding police shootings, how they’re investigated and how they’re adjudicated—along with issues around the treatment of the mentally ill, black residents and the shooting of unarmed suspects.

What happened

The deadly confrontation between Ford, 25 and the police officers came two days after a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

Wampler and Villegas had been working the Newton Division gang unit together for five months when they encountered Ford on Aug. 11, 2014 in front of a house near 65th and Broadway. Ford, who grew up in the neighborhood, spent much of his days as an adult taking extended walks, often bumming cigarettes from people he knew

Wampler said he saw Ford near a group of gang members and thought he might have purchased drugs, so he and his partner stopped Ford. 

Wampler said Ford grabbed his gun during a struggle. Both officers shot and Ford was hit three times. An autopsy report said one of the shots was from such close enough it left a muzzle mark on his back.

“My son was just walking home," Tritobia Ford said. "He didn’t have any drugs. He didn’t have any guns. And he wound up dead.”

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said DNA evidence and scratch marks proved Ford grabbed Wampler's gun and that means the shooting was justified.

But the Police Commission said the officers had no reason to stop Ford to begin with. They said by stopping him without cause, they created the situation that led to his death. 

Ultimately, the chief, not the commission decides on punishment. And in this case, the officers said in court filings they've been assigned to desk duty, which they claim is not justified by the shooting but rather to appease the public. The Ford shooting provoked heavy protests in South L.A. and it's still evoked in Black Lives Matter protests.

Lawsuits by relatives of those shot by police are not uncommon. Neither are discrimination claims filed by officers in instances of discipline. What's unusual about this case is that they each have an important decision backing them.

Ford's family

Ezell Ford's family are seeking relief in the same Los Angeles civil court system as the officers. As opposed to federal court, in state court jurors can consider officers' actions leading up to a shooting, according to Fred Sayre, the family's attorney.

He said settlement talks with the city have fallen through repeatedly. 

Wilcox, of the City Attorney's office, declined to comment. The case is scheduled to go to trial in January.

The criminal investigation

Each time an officer in Los Angeles County shoots a civilian, prosecutors from the District Attorney's Office review evidence to decide whether to press charges against the officer.

D.A. Spokeswoman Jane Robison told KPCC the department received the results of LAPD's internal investigation more than a year ago. She said the case has been stalled as prosecutors gather additional evidence. 

Court records from the Ford family's civil rights lawsuit against the LAPD show the D.A.'s office petitioned a federal court judge in January for access to sworn testimony from witnesses including Beck and both police officers interviewed by attorneys in the Ford family civil case. 

The D.A. already had any statements the officers gave to LAPD officials, but generally, they would not be able to use such "compelled statements" in a criminal prosecution.

Robison declined to comment on when the investigation might be complete. 

Tritobia Ford said she's just looking forward to it being over.

“Vengeance is not mine, it’s the lord’s," she said. "And whatever happens, I pray to god to help me with acceptance.”