Officer Involved: Why this LA officer was criminally charged with shooting a civilian
The last time an L.A. officer was charged for an on-duty shooting was 15 years ago. What makes it different from hundreds of other cases?
The Lakers were about to play a key NBA championship game and Charles Beatty didn’t want to miss it. He was rushing to pick up his son when traffic backed up on Central Avenue and he became increasingly annoyed.
"Let's go, let's go, let's go," Beatty recalled shouting at the line of cars. "The light changed a couple of times and it didn't move."
Beatty, then 66, decided he wasn’t going to wait. He crossed into oncoming traffic and got around the cars.
That caught Ronald Orosco's eye.
"He went around the double yellow line," said Orosco, who was 30 at the time.
Orosco, an undercover LAPD officer, was the source of the traffic jam. He and his partner had stopped their unmarked Chevrolet at the corner of Florence Avenue to question someone.
A routine stop, then shots fired
A chase, traffic ticket – and angry confrontation later, Orosco pulled his gun and fired four shots at Beatty as he drove away.
“At that point the window shattered and I saw him like slump over,” Orosco said. “And I'm thinking, 'Oh my god, I just killed this person.' "
Beatty survived, but the incident led to prison time for Orosco – even though he insists he was in fear for his life when he fired.
It was June 2000. It had been 18 years since an officer had been convicted by prosecutors for an on-duty shooting, according to Los Angeles Times coverage at the time. No officer in Los Angeles County has been prosecuted for an on-duty shooting since.
KPCC's review of criminal charges for on-duty use of force in recent years found that officers who used Tasers and physical force, not their firearms, are the ones who get charged. Even those cases are rare.
LAPD officer Mary O’Callaghan was caught on a dashboard camera kicking, shoving and pushing a woman who was handcuffed and inside a police car. O’Callaghan was convicted by a jury in June.
Other officers convicted for excessive force on the job include a San Fernando police officer who tased a minor, and a Maywood police officer who assaulted a suspect.
Some officers were charged but never convicted. The incidents that led to those charges included beatings and putting a minor in a chokehold.
Laurie Levenson, professor of law at Loyola Law School, said prosecutors face a high level of proof that officers are guilty of a crime while on duty.
“In the case against police officers, it’s also weighing heavily on jurors minds — are we really going to put a police officer in prison and say that they were a criminal?” Levenson said.
A KPCC investigation found that more than 650 on-duty officers shot civilians from 2010 to 2014. Ninety-seven of the people they shot were unarmed. Even among those armed with some kind of weapon, the circumstances in some cases raised questions. None have been prosecuted.
"Every single shooting we respond to has different facts," said James Garrison, head of the D.A.'s Justice System Integrity Division, which determines whether to bring charges in police shootings. "No two shootings are the same, so we're looking at it with the basic premise that an ordinary citizen and a police officer have the right to defend themselves."
Police are allowed to shoot if they fear for their lives, but prosecutors cite case law noting the fear has to be reasonable.
Orosco said he was afraid.
His argument with Beatty ended in a physical struggle. Beatty sat in the car and Orosco said he felt stuck as the car lurched forward. He said he fired in self-defense, fearing he was going to be pulled into oncoming traffic.
Press for prosecution
But a forensic expert testified Orosco fired as the car sped away with bullets striking the car at 2 feet, 8 feet, 39, then finally, from nearly 50 feet away.
In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in Tennessee v. Garner that police can only use deadly force against a fleeing suspect if the person poses "a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others."
Prosecutors said Beatty wasn't a fleeing felon - and he certainly wasn't a threat.
"It was very clear to us that an unarmed 66-year-old motorist was shot in the back for no good reason – and we determined that charges would be filed," said Deputy District Attorney John Gilligan, one of the lead prosecutors in the case.
Orosco insists the only reason he was prosecuted was damage control.
The LAPD Rampart scandal had raised questions about who was watching the police. That scandal stemmed from allegations less than a year earlier that undercover anti-gang officers had planted evidence, beaten suspects and filed false reports. Dozens of convictions were overturned and the city of Los Angeles had to pay over $75 million in settlements.
In February 2000, the District Attorney’s Office revived a program that sent prosecutors to the scene of officer involved shootings.
Four months later, Orosco shot Beatty.
"At that point they've just lost the Rampart case and they're out to prove a point," Orosco said.
Gilligan said his office investigated the case "the way we pursued any case" and disputes that the climate influenced the decision to file charges.
"If the facts were there, we were going to pursue the case, period," he said.
Beatty admits he didn't follow directions of the two officers – who he at first thought were drivers experiencing “road rage” - even after the plainclothes detectives flashed their badges and identified themselves as police.
But he still thinks Orosco should have been taught to take the high road.
"I don't blame [Orosco] for what he did,” Beatty said. “I blame the people that taught him how to do this. I blame the training that he got. That's the bottom line. What kind of training does this man have?"
Orosco also described a heated exchange with Beatty, but insists he followed protocol - and that handing out traffic tickets is his job.
"It's very easy to second-guess somebody," said Orosco, now 45. "But you're not him, you weren't in his shoes at that time, you don't know what was going through his mind."
The case received lots of media attention.
"The atmosphere was very charged in the city and in the court house," said John Sweeney, one of the attorneys who sued the city on Beatty's behalf.
Rather than file criminal charges directly, prosecutors took the case to a grand jury. Orosco was charged with multiple counts, including assault with a deadly weapon and intention to cause great bodily injury. A conviction on all counts could have sent him to prison for more than two decades.
In 2001, Orosco took a plea deal. He agreed to a five year prison sentence and conviction for shooting into an occupied car in exchange for prosecutors dropping the rest of the charges.
"We believe that that was a just sentence," Gilligan said. "This was a situation where we knew he was going to go to prison, where he was going to be held accountable."
Orosco said he didn't feel like he had a choice but to accept the prison sentence and vividly recalls the day of the hearing.
"I just remember looking out the side door and it was a view of the skyline and I'm looking at some of the buildings, going: this city just chewed me up and now they're spitting me out," he said.
The bullet that hit Beatty, now 81, remains lodged near his spine. The city paid him $2 million to settle a civil lawsuit.
Orosco was released from prison in 2004.
Annie Gilbertson, Erika Aguilar and Frank Stoltze contributed to this report.