The District Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday that no charges will be filed against two Los Angeles police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Ezell Ford, whose 2014 death has been a focal point of protests against the department over police shootings of black suspects.
In a 28-page report detailing its investigation into Ford’s Aug. 11, 2014, shooting death, the District Attorney’s Justice System Integrity Division concluded that Los Angeles police Officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas “acted lawfully in self-defense and in defense of others.”
Ford’s family, which sued the department over the shooting in 2015, contended that Ford was “mentally challenged” and wasn’t doing anything wrong when he was approached by the offices.
“After looking at this for a couple of years and taking, you know, all of the measures to talk to everyone that we possibly could, we believe that we would not be justified as an office filing murder charges in this case,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey told reporters.
The district attorney said she understands some people will disagree with the decision, but said she hopes they will review the report from the District Attorney’s Office.
“What was persuasive is the physical evidence in this case supported what the officers said, which is Officer Wampler was on the bottom, Ford was on top of him and was struggling with him for control of his service weapon, which was in his holster at his side,” the district attorney said.
Police and prosecutors said the two LAPD Newton Area gang enforcement officers approached Ford, 25, because he was acting suspiciously and may have been trying to discard an illegal substance. A struggle ensued.
“… The evidence indicates that Ford was on top of Wampler, struggling to obtain Wampler’s primary service weapon and posing an immediate threat to his safety and his partner’s safety,” according to the District Attorney’s Office report. “In fear for their lives, Villegas and Wampler each responded with deadly force.”
Ford — who was shot three times — was taken to California Medical Center Hospital, where he died less than two hours later.
The front portion of Wampler’s holster subsequently tested positive for Ford’s “touch” DNA — with the DNA either coming from Ford’s sweat, skin or saliva because the area tested negative for blood, according to the report.
“This corroborates that Ford’s hand was touching Wampler’s holster during this incident,” prosecutors wrote in the report.
The district attorney told reporters it was “not very probable” that the DNA got on the holster some other way.
“It matches what the officers said happened with regard to this struggle. It was found on the lower part of the holster that Officer Wampler had,” Lacey said. “On top of that, the officer indicates that he felt the gun was being pushed up out of the holster.”
Blood stains on the front of Wampler’s utility belt and uniform shirt are consistent with Ford lying on top of Wampler when he was shot, and Wampler’s uniform appeared to have dirt on the back of the shirt and the pants, prosecutors wrote in the report.
Four witnesses made statements that differed substantially from the officers’ accounts in several areas, with each saying that one or both of the officers were on top of Ford, according to the report.
“If Ford was on the ground and one or both officers were on top of him, it is unlikely that he would have gunshots to both his front and back,” prosecutors wrote in the report.
The district attorney told reporters that some witnesses had a prior relationship with Ford, some witnesses “frequently” contradicted each other as to who was on the top and who was on the bottom, and that prosecutors decided to look at the physical evidence to see whose version of events it corroborated.
Wampler had swelling to his right wrist that is consistent with an effort to push down on his handgun as Ford tried to get it out of the holster, according to the report.
Another witness who was unaware of Wampler’s presence at the scene said she heard Villegas state, “Let go of the gun!” according to the report.
Villegas shot Ford twice, and Wampler pulled out his back-up weapon with his non-dominant, left hand, reached around Ford’s body and shot him once in the back, prosecutors said.
Lacey acknowledged that there was no question there was “a danger of an officer shooting either his partner or Wampler shooting himself,” but said that helped lead prosecutors to their ultimate conclusion that it was “not some officer who deliberately took out a gun and said, `I’m going to shoot Mr. Ford.”‘
“This was a struggle on the ground for a couple of minutes that was very tense and that action of him taking the spare gun out of his vest shows just how desperate it was,” the district attorney said. “Remember, that’s the last shot. Mr. Ford is shot two other times before he (Wampler) takes that action and still the officer felt he was in danger of being killed.”
The district attorney said the question was whether the two officers believed Ford was about to take Wampler’s gun, saying that there are “a lot of facts that indicate that they did.”
If a case had been filed, the prosecution would have to prove to jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that Ford was shot by the officers and that there was no lawful self-defense if a case had been filed, Lacey said, noting that the issue of DNA and who had possession of the gun and what happened comes into effect and would be a “very plausible defense” for the officers.
The district attorney said she called Ford’s mother to notify her about the decision not to prosecute the officers before publicly releasing the report after what the District Attorney’s Office called a thorough and exhaustive review that included access to more than 1,000 pages of deposition transcripts of nine people whose testimony cannot be made public because of a federal court protective order.
Lacey called Ford’s death “tragic” and said she wished it had been avoided.
The city Police Commission ruled in 2015 that one of the officers in the shooting was justified in opening fire, but the other violated department policy. The commission did not specify which officer acted improperly.
Ford’s parents sued the city, but a tentative settlement was reached late last year.
According to the lawsuit filed in March 2015, Wampler and Villegas — who were named defendants along with the city and LAPD — “intentionally and/or negligently fatally shot unarmed decedent Ezell Ford multiple times with their firearms” after he had complied with their order to lie on the ground.
The officers knew Ford was “mentally challenged” and that he was not committing a crime at the time, the lawsuit stated.
The shooting prompted several protests and calls for a speedy and transparent investigation. Activists have argued that eyewitnesses dispute the police account of events.
Ford’s shooting has been a rallying cry for police department critics who attend weekly Police Commission meetings and regularly decry shootings of black suspects by police.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents LAPD officers, issued a statement in support of the District Attorney’s Office decision against filing charges.
“No officer ever wants to be put in a dangerous situation where they must struggle to maintain control of their weapon, but officers must be allowed to protect themselves, their partners and the public,” according to the union.
Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a statement saying he accepts the decision, but he will “rededicate my administration to the search for better ways to protect the safety of all Angelenos, and reiterate my support for the Police Commission’s goal of reinforcing de-escalation in the training of our officers.”
“I am committed to giving the men and women of the LAPD the skills and tools they need to be as secure as possible while doing an incredibly difficult job on our behalf,” he said. “It is that work, and the work yet to come, that we hope will one day make these kinds of tragedies a thing of the past not just here in Los Angeles, but everywhere in America.”
—City News Service