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LAPD's Half-Open Book

Two days after the July 10 fatal shooting of Suzie Lopez and her 35-year-old car-dealer father Jose Raul Peña, a reporter asked Police Chief William Bratton why a security hold had been placed on the autopsy reports. Surprised, Bratton said he would look into the matter. He did. The next day, the hold was lifted, and the report is expected to be released in the coming weeks, once drug and toxicology results are in.

Bratton went on to disclose one of the coroner’s more important findings: The bullet that felled little Suzie came from an LAPD rifle.

Bratton’s openness looked like more proof that he is still trying to tear down the walls of secrecy and defensiveness that sometimes towered so high during the tenures of Bernie Parks and Daryl Gates.

Bratton said he had no idea that the LAPD’s Force Investigation Unit customarily tells the Coroner’s Office to put a security hold on reports in officer-involved shooting cases. The LAPD, he insisted, has nothing to hide.

In important ways, Bratton had once again broken with past traditions that put a tight seal on information in high-profile cases. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Until Wednesday afternoon, the LAPD had refused to release the names of the officers who most likely fired the shots that killed Suzie and her father — information that can help the media and the public scrutinize their records. The chief told the L.A. Times that it may be impossible to determine who actually fired the fatal shot. Even during the more secretive reigns of Bratton’s predecessors, the LAPD routinely released names of officers involved in deadly shootings, sometimes immediately. They did so because of a 1997 state appellate court ruling, involving a Santa Barbara case, that requires police agencies to release the names of officers in fatal shootings. The court found the public’s interest outweighed an officer’s right of privacy. “We generally release officers’ names, but right now we are delaying the release of the names so the officers can have privacy,” said LAPD Lieutenant Paul Vernon. Bratton’s style of opening the book on important investigations does not seem to include another recent sensitive case — the fatal shooting by a police officer of Devin Brown in February. A security hold remains on the autopsy report of the unarmed 13-year-old boy, who was behind the wheel of a stolen car when officers chased him at 4 a.m. At the end of the chase, Brown, who is black, backed into the patrol car. LAPD Officer Steve Garcia fired 10 shots. After the teen’s death, the department revised its policy and now allows officers to fire on a moving vehicle only if their lives are in danger.

Among other issues, the autopsy report will show how many bullets hit Brown and will help determine how far Garcia was standing from Brown’s car, and whether he faced imminent harm before he fired his weapon.

LAPD’s Vernon said there were some mistakes in the coroner’s report that are being rectified by the Force Investigation Unit. “They are working out some differences between our investigation and the coroner’s initial report,” Vernon said. “And when they work out the minor differences it won’t change the coroner’s findings. It will ensure that some of the minor facts are consistent. If there is either a mistake or an oversight in one report, you wouldn’t want it saying it if it is not accurate. How do you know which one is the most accurate? It is not going to change the outcome of the case.”

LAPD Sergeant Catherine Plows said the error pertains to ballistics and to the caliber of the weapon, and said the report would be released soon. In May, Brown’s mother, Evelyn Davis, sued the police, and her attorney recently went to court to try to obtain the autopsy report. Instead, a judge extended the security hold through September.

Media lawyers believe that a coroner’s report must be released under the California Public Records Act, but there is as yet no appellate ruling to settle the issue of whether a police agency can place a hold on the report. It is clear, however, that the report is the word of the coroner — not the police. “They are not required to be simpatico with the findings of the LAPD,” said Craig Harvey, chief coroner investigator and chief of operations. “Sometimes we agree and sometimes we do not . . . and that is okay.”

It’s also clear that Bratton knows of the security hold on the Brown autopsy. Said Plows: “He didn’t know, but he does now.”


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