Back and to the Left: The L.A. Times Analyzes a Police Shooting

Imagine working in an occupation in which your most important decisions were evaluated by people who have never performed your job.  Imagine further that your very life depended on those decisions and that you had to make them in the blink of an eye.  And finally imagine that others could take months to come to a conclusion about what you had done, mulling it over with the aid of reports, photographs, and a 3-D animation of what had occurred.

Such is the situation facing officers in the Los Angeles Police Department today.

On May 7, the Los Angeles Times reported on a police shooting that occurred about a year ago.  According to the Times, two undercover narcotics detectives were walking in downtown Los Angeles when they initiated an impromptu buy-bust operation aimed at a street-corner drug dealer.  When the suspected dealer snatched a proffered $5 bill from the hand of Detective Arthur Gamboa and then failed to deliver the expected merchandise, Gamboa began following the suspect and demanding the product he had paid for.

The account of the shooting as described in the Times is interrupted with this ominous sentence: “What happened next is not clear.”  From which the reader is supposed to infer that something untoward surely happened.

Gamboa claimed the suspect stopped and turned around while unfolding a large knife, then said, “I am going to kill you.”  Gamboa, fearing he was about to be stabbed, pulled his concealed pistol and shot the suspect twice, killing him.  When interviewed by investigators, Gamboa insisted he had shot the suspect in the chest.

Again the Times strikes the ominous chord: “An autopsy, however, showed both bullets had struck [the suspect] on the left side of his back, making Gamboa’s account impossible.”

As with all officer-involved shootings in the LAPD, Gamboa’s was investigated by detectives from Force Investigation Division, who interviewed Gamboa and his partner as well as other witnesses.  Every bit of evidence at the shooting scene was photographed and its location measured and noted, all for inclusion in an animated 3-D presentation.  The FID investigators prepared a report, which was presented to command-level officers who sit on what is known in the LAPD as a shooting review board.  The board reached conclusions on three separate questions: 1) Were the involved detectives’ tactics in conformance with LAPD policy?  2) Was the drawing and exhibiting of a weapon proper under the circumstances?  And 3) Was the use of deadly force justified and within policy?

The shooting review board concluded that the detectives’ tactics were deficient in that they engaged in a buy-bust operation without the necessary personnel and other safeguards in place, but that Detective Gamboa was justified in drawing his pistol and shooting when the suspect presented an immediate deadly threat.  LAPD Chief Charlie Beck concurred with these findings.  But, when it comes to officer-involved shootings, Chief Beck’s is not the last word.  The five civilian members of the police commission, mayoral appointees, are charged with making the final ruling.  And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa makes appointments to his commissions, most especially such a high-profile one as the police commission, not with an eye toward expertise but rather with an emphasis on “diversity” as the word is currently understood.  In the case of Detective Gamboa, the commission voted 3-2 to rule the shooting out of policy.