Officer Jeff Nolte was leading a drug raid on a motel in Gardena when a suspected cocaine dealer pointed a shotgun at him. Nolte fired two shots "in immediate defense of his life," hitting the suspect, Leonard Robinson, in the hands and disarming him.
At least that was the story told by the Los Angeles Police Department. Seeing no reason to doubt it, the Police Commission ruled the shooting "in policy." Nolte was officially in the clear.
Evidence not seen by the commission showed that Robinson had his hands in the air when Nolte opened fire. Robinson wasn't aiming a weapon at the officer, the jury found. He was trying to surrender. Robinson collected $2 million in damages this year.
"I do not believe that any officer could reasonably have believed that this shooting was justified," said U.S. District Court Judge Nora Manella, who presided at the trial.
It was not the first time the Police Commission had been led astray by the department it supervises. Time and again, the LAPD has given its civilian overseers an incomplete, often distorted picture of police shootings, a Times investigation found.
The five-member commission — made up of lawyers, business people and civic leaders appointed by the mayor — is supposed to serve as the public's sentinel at police headquarters.
Scrutinizing shootings is one of its most important responsibilities, a way to ensure that police who use excessive force do not go undetected or unpunished.
Yet as a watchdog, the commission operates with a serious handicap: It has frequently been kept in the dark about important aspects of LAPD shootings.
The department's shooting reports routinely omit information that might cause the commission to question whether officers acted properly. Witnesses who told investigators that police fired without provocation have gone unmentioned. Physical evidence that contradicts an officer's claim of self-defense has been left out.
The Times studied dozens of shootings, comparing the information presented to the Police Commission with confidential Police Department files, court records and other documents.
In at least 28 shootings, 15 of them fatal, the commission ruled that the use of force was "in policy" — that is, reasonable and justified — without knowing about evidence that pointed to the opposite conclusion.
A few examples:
In 1999, police searching for the source of New Year's Eve gunfire shot and killed a man they said had pointed a shotgun at them. Evidence that the officers mistakenly shot an unarmed man was left out of the investigative summary presented to the commission.
City lawyers, confronted later with the full evidence, agreed to pay the man's family $2.6 million.
In 1997, a drug-addled motorist slammed his car door on a police officer's arm and tried to flee, pulling the officer along. Another officer then shot and killed the driver. The LAPD said it was the only way to save the trapped policeman.
However, four bystanders — not mentioned in the LAPD summary — told detectives that the policeman had gotten free of the car and was out of danger when his colleague shot the motorist to death.
In 1996, officers shot and wounded two men they said had opened fire on them from the balcony of an apartment building. The LAPD summary depicted it as an open-and-shut case of self-defense.
Unknown to the commission, police investigators had found no evidence to support the officers' account, and an internal LAPD panel had concluded that they did not come under fire. (See article, Page A26.)