Amid Protests, LAPD Cop Cleared of Wrongdoing in Fatal Shooting of Black Woman
By Kate Mather, James Queally and Ruben Vives
As hundreds of people demonstrated in downtown Los Angeles against killings by police, the city's Police Commission decided Tuesday that an LAPD officer did not violate the department's deadly force policy last year when he fatally shot an African American woman in a South L.A. alleyway.
A crowd of peaceful protesters that had gathered earlier in the day at LAPD headquarters decried the panel's decision and quickly moved across the street to City Hall, where activists pounded on glass doors as they were blocked from entering and denounced how police officers used force, particularly against African Americans.
The focus on Redel Jones' death came at a time of flaring tensions across the country over race and policing. Protesters have marched in cities coast to coast, shutting down freeways in Oakland and Inglewood and packing New York's Times Square after last week's fatal police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, and a sniper attack in Dallas that killed five officers.
But it wasn't only last week's events that drew demonstrators to Tuesday's L.A. Police Commission meeting. In the year since Jones' death, activists have chanted her name at the weekly meetings, written it on signs carried at protests and spread it on Twitter as a hashtag.
Jones, who was black, was killed after Los Angeles police say she moved toward an officer while holding a knife. The LAPD said the 30-year-old matched the description of a woman who robbed a nearby pharmacy about 20 minutes earlier, prompting officers to pursue her into the alley.
But a woman who said she saw the August 2015 shooting from her car questioned why police opened fire, telling the Los Angeles Times that Jones was running away from the officers and never turned toward them.
Siding with the police chief, the Police Commission determined in a 3-0 vote that the shooting was justified because an officer could reasonably have believed that Jones' "actions while armed with a knife presented an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury," according to a written summary of its findings. The panel and the chief, however, criticized some of the actions of the officers, including their talking to her while sitting in their cars instead of getting out.
The board also noted that the officers initially failed to activate their in-car cameras and didn't come up with a plan before approaching Jones. It was the first day the two officers had worked together.
The written summary did not say whether LAPD investigators interviewed the woman who told The Times that Jones did not charge the officers.
Earlier in the day, Jones' husband, Marcus Vaughn, delivered a passionate speech to the Police Commission, describing his wife as a kind woman who "always thought of others more than herself."
Vaughn took a bus to Los Angeles from Oakland on Monday night after his 13-year-old son begged him to go and speak on behalf of his mother. He described his children's tears and his wife's accomplishments, saying she taught herself how to fix computers and was taking classes in holistic healthcare shortly before she was killed.
"You all stole her from me," he told the board, later saying he wanted the officers prosecuted and the LAPD to change its policies from "top to bottom."
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has not yet been presented with the investigation into the shooting, according to a spokeswoman.
The events leading up to Jones' death unfolded the afternoon of Aug. 12, when an employee at a Baldwin Hills pharmacy called police, saying a woman had just robbed the store. The amount taken was about $80, according to a report LAPD Chief Charlie Beck submitted to the Police Commission. Footage from the pharmacy's security camera -- which was reviewed by The Times -- captured the robbery as well as the glint of a knife visible before the woman walked out of the store with a cash-filled envelope.
Police initially spotted Jones during their search for the robbery suspect. Like the woman described in the robbery, Beck's report said, Jones was wearing a purple scarf and wearing baggy clothing.
Officers pulled their patrol car alongside Jones on Santo Tomas Drive, and one told her to stop, according to Beck's report. Instead, the report said, Jones picked up her pace, walking away from them.
The officers continued to follow Jones in their car as she turned into a nearby alley, the report said, again telling her to "stop and put her hands up." At one point, the officers got out of their car. One drew his gun and ordered Jones on the ground. Jones jogged away, the report said, pulling a kitchen knife from her waistband.
"She's got the knife in her hand," an officer broadcast on a police radio. "She's running."
The officers ran after Jones as another pair of officers drove into the alley and got out of their car, joining the foot chase. Jones "suddenly stopped" and turned around, the report said, the knife raised in her hand.
One witness told investigators that they saw Jones "pull a knife out and advance towards police" after the group stopped running.
The names of the officers involved in the encounter were redacted from the report. The LAPD previously identified the officer who shot Jones as Brett Ramirez.
Ramirez told investigators he tried to stop when Jones did, but ended up closer to her than he intended. The officer began to move back when Jones moved toward him, he said, according to the report.
"She's turning, facing straight at me, and then points the knife at me, and charges at me," Ramirez told investigators. "I thought my life was in danger ... only one of us was going to make it out of this."
Another officer tried to use a Taser on Jones, the report said, but the stun gun's probes didn't connect to her body.
Jones died at the scene. Investigators found the knife along with money and a "robbery demand note" in her clothing, the LAPD said.
The woman who previously told The Times she witnessed the shooting gave a different account, saying Jones was running from police when the shots rang out. Courtyana Franklin, 21, said she watched the events unfold from the side mirror of her car, which was parked in the alley.
"I do know for a fact that she was not charging at them," Franklin told The Times after the shooting. "I just saw her running."
Gary Fullerton, an attorney representing the officers, said Tuesday that in "better circumstances," the officers might have had more time to come up with a plan to take Jones into custody without using deadly force. But that wasn't the case, he said.
Jones presented an "immediate threat" to police, Fullerton said.
"Unfortunately, under the circumstances, they had to do what they had to do," he said. "I think the Police Commission got that right."
Jones was one of 36 people shot by on-duty LAPD officers last year. Twenty-one were killed. This year, on-duty Los Angeles police officers have shot 10 people, nine fatally.
After the commission announced its decision, about two dozen people inside the meeting room began shouting at the panel and demanded that the city remove the commission's president and fire Beck.
Others outside wept and hugged. One man began shaking a police barricade until a woman nearby pulled him away.
"Now's not the time for that," she told him. "This is how black people get shot."
Others booed, chanting Jones' name and holding their fists in the air before marching to City Hall. Police officers inside held the doors shut against the crowd of about 100 people.
"It's our City Hall," the crowd chanted.
No arrests were made, the LAPD said.
Many in the crowd outside the LAPD's headquarters during the day said they were drawn tby last week's fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn.
"I get pulled over like every week. It makes me feel like it's got to end," said Dale Troy, 24, of Burbank, who was attending his first commission meeting. "I feel like what happened to Philando could easily happen to me."
Kenneth Ellis, a 32-year-old artist and videographer, said that he was compelled to come to the meeting -- which he learned about on Facebook -- to "stand for justice and unity" not just for people shot by police, but for the officers killed in Dallas.
"We don't want any violence," he said.
(c)2016 the Los Angeles Times