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LAPD chief defends officers in fatal shootings: 'nothing else they could do'

File: LAPD Chief Charlie Beck addresses the media at Police Headquarters in Los Angeles.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
File: LAPD Chief Charlie Beck addresses the media at Police Headquarters in Los Angeles.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck tells AirTalk why he backed officers involved in two recent fatal police shootings that the police commission later ruled were unjustified.

A day after the city's police commission ruled two officers were out of policy in a police shooting  near downtown, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said there was nothing else the officers could have done. 

“I think that the commission recognizes that at the point where they discharged their weapons, there was really nothing else they could do,” Beck said, speaking to AirTalk on Wednesday. “The commission was critical because of what they saw as a lack of planning prior to their arrival at the call.”

Last September, officers fatally shot a mentally ill homeless woman carrying an 8-inch knife on a sidewalk south of downtown. 

The woman was 37-year-old Norma Guzman, and the officers alleged they feared for their safety when she continued moving toward them with the knife, according to a report from the L.A. Board of Police Commissioners. 

That was apparently not enough to sway LAPD's civilian oversight board Tuesday. It ruled the shooting — and another involving a homeless man in Van Nuys — were out of policy

Beck had previously found the officers' actions in both incidents to be within policy.

It was not the first time the police commission has gone against the chief's recommendation, but it was still a relatively rare move.

Beck stood by the officers, saying Guzman was within 4 to 5 feet when officers fired.

“In that kind of circumstance, the Taser, which is only effective about two-thirds of the time, would not be an appropriate weapon,” Beck said.

Additionally, a Taser is not an effective defense against an edged weapon and has a poor range, and other less-lethal options were not available to the officers, Beck said.

Officers had also alleged that Guzman was saying “Shoot me,” which Beck said might have been an indication of her determination but was not something officers would generally factor into their decision to shoot.

“You consider everything, but you need much more than that. You have to have a direct action that would have a consequence that could be either fatal or cause great bodily injury, and the officers certainly had that in this case,” Beck said.

You can read the full commission report below:

Another fatal police shooting

The commission on Tuesday disagreed with Beck on another fatal police shooting, this one taking place in October 2015.

In that incident, 45-year-old James Byrd allegedly threw a bottle at the rear windshield of a police cruiser. The officers, believing they were being ambushed, stepped out of their vehicle, opening fire within 10 seconds and fatally shooting Byrd.

The commission disagreed with Beck on at least one point, finding one officer’s use of lethal force unjustified, but the chief said he agreed that the second volley of gunfire was out of policy.

“This was a difficult circumstance for these officers, and it highlights the difficulty of the job once again,” Beck said. “You know, it’s almost midnight, stopped at a red light, and suddenly the rear window explodes in their police car, and you know, when that happens, it’s difficult to tell what happened.”

Beck pointed out that the officers had been briefed the day before about an online video that depicted a man holding a gun in a car parked immediately behind a black-and-white patrol car.

Though the video reportedly turned out to be part of a rap promotion, Beck said it could have been perceived as a potential threat and was on officers’ minds when they were on patrol that night.

Beck defended the decision to alert officers to the video, because “police officers do get ambushed, and that does happen. And when we get something that may be an indicator that somebody’s planning that, then I would be derelict in my duty not to warn them.”

But he also said it was important to ensure officers “react appropriately to circumstance, and that’s why I was critical also of this particular shooting.”

Beck said he was legally not allowed to discuss whether or how he might discipline the officers in either case, citing the police officers’ bill of rights.

Beck’s monthly conversation with AirTalk covered a number of other topics, including fights in the stands and over the financing of policing at L.A. Rams games, the drug abuse and toxicity on Skid Row, the Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement — or HOPE — initiative, and a new LAPD commissioner asking for a closer look at racial profiling.

To listen to the full interview, click the blue player button above.

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