Ryan Twyman Was In A Moving Car When Deputies Killed Him. LA's Troubled History Of Police Shooting At Cars
When two L.A. County sheriff's deputies shot and killed Ryan Twyman as he slowly drove his car in reverse earlier this month, they may have been violating a strict department policy: Deputies are essentially prohibited from shooting at moving vehicles unless a weapon is present. No gun was found in Twyman's car.
The change came in 2016, in the wake of a KPCC investigation that found L.A. County law enforcement officers shot at moving vehicles at least 28 times between 2010 and 2014 - and that the Sheriff's Department accounted for more than one-third of those incidents.
For decades, the Sheriff's Department and the LAPD generally considered moving cars a deadly weapon and officers were allowed to stop them with deadly force - even after other departments across the country banned the practice and the U.S. Justice Department recommended against it because of the danger it posed to innocent bystanders if the driver lost control of the car.
KILLING OF 13-YEAR OLD SPURS CHANGE
When former New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton arrived to head the LAPD in 2002, he said he wanted to find a way to reduce the incidents of offices shooting at moving cars, according to former LAPD Captain Greg Meyer. He said it was happening about 10 or 12 times a year.
Three years later, an officer fatally shot 13-year-old Devin Brown, as he slowly backed toward officers in an allegedly stolen car. Brown was African-American. The black community was outraged at the killing of a young teenager.
That gave Bratton his opportunity, said Meyer.
The chief's old department in New York and many others around the country had long ended the practice over concerns wounded drivers would leave a two-ton car careening out of control.
Within a month of the Brown shooting, Bratton recommended a policy that officers could no longer consider a car moving in their direction a deadly threat -- and were prohibited from shooting at it -- unless the driver was armed with some other deadly weapon.
"In plain English, the policy was, don't shoot, get out of the way, re-position and try something else," said Meyer, who headed the training academy at the time and helped write the new policy. He added that there was a caveat.
"It says it's recognized this policy doesn't cover all situations that might arise," he said.
Sometimes officers are unable to get out of the way and a car is coming right at them, said Meyer, who is now a use of force expert who consult and testifies in trials.
The LAPD spent the next 18 months retraining officers, he said. Instructors ran cars at officers in different scenarios so they could practice getting out of the way.
The next year, shooting at cars dropped to about three a year, he recalled.
VILLANUEVA RESERVING JUDGMENT
The Sheriff's Department also adopted a policy discouraging shooting at moving cars in 2005, although it did not make it as strict as the LAPD's until more than a decade later, in 2016 -- after a national uproar over police killings of unarmed drivers and the KPCC investigation found deputies engaged in the practice more often than any other police department in the country.
The sheriff's revised policy states, "firearms shall not be discharged at a stationary or moving vehicle" or its occupants unless someone in the vehicle is "imminently threatening a department member or another person present with deadly force by means other than the moving vehicle."
It states that "the moving vehicle itself shall not presumptively constitute a threat that justifies the use of deadly force."
Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he is "not making any judgment right now" on the shooting of Twyman.
He also would not comment on whether the number of shots fired at the 24-year-old father of three -- approximately 34 -- was excessive. Surveillance video shows one officer reloading his handgun and the other using his handgun then going to the trunk of their squad car to grab a semi-automatic rifle.
"You have two people -- not one. It depends on the set of circumstances," the sheriff said.
Villanueva recalled the department tightening the policy three years ago, but did not recall the details. In general, he said the agency "frowned upon shooting at vehicles."
But in the video released by the Sheriff's Department Thursday, Commander April Tardy seemed to defend the deputies. She said "the vehicle was used as a weapon against the sheriff's deputies," and one of them was in danger of "getting knocked down and run over."
Tardy did also say that the investigations are in their early stages, so "our understanding of the incident may change as additional evidence is collected, analyzed and reviewed."
She added: "We do not draw conclusions as to whether the involved department members acted consistent with our policies, our training and the law until all the facts are known and the entire investigation is complete."
WARNING:VIDEO CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT MAY BE DISTURBING >>
The sheriff is conducting two investigations -- one to evaluate whether the deputies acted criminally and the other to see if they violated department policy. The Sheriff's Department's Executive Force Review Committee will make a recommendation to Villanueva whether the deputies violated policy.
The L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey eventually will decide whether to file criminal charges.
The sheriff said he decided to release the video of the shooting "for transparency purposes." He said there were a lot of rumors circulating that were stirring up emotions. Villanueva did not elaborate.
WHEN ARE OFFICERS CHARGED CRIMINALLY?
It is notable that the two times in the last two decades when a peace officer in L.A. County has faced criminal charges in a shooting, both were instances of the officer shooting at someone in a vehicle.
In December, Deputy Luke Liu pleaded not guilty when he was charged with voluntary manslaughter for the fatal 2016 shooting of an unarmed motorist in Norwalk.
"We believe the officer's use of deadly force was unjustified and unreasonable under the circumstances," Lacey said at the time.
Liu had spotted a car he believed to be stolen at a gas station in Norwalk car. According to prosecutors, he approached the driver's side door, then moved to the rear of the vehicle.
Prosecutors allege Liu then ran alongside the car and fired seven shots at the driver, Francisco Garcia, 24. Garcia, who was struck by four of those shots was killed. his gun, rang "ran alongside the car and fired seven shots at Garcia."
The incident, which lasted about 20 seconds, was witnessed by civilians and partially captured on video.
Prior to Liu, a sworn officer hadn't faced criminal charges in a shooting since 2000.
At that time, LAPD Officer Ronald Orosco was charged with multiple counts, including assault with a deadly weapon and intention to cause great bodily injury for shooting and wounding an unarmed 66-year old man.
The incident that got Orosco in trouble began when he was working undercover.
Charles Beatty, the man Orosco shot in the back, later testified he was rushing to get pick up his son and not miss a Lakers playoff game when he tried to go around a traffic jam in South L.A. Orosco, who was working undercover and in an unmarked car, pursued Beatty and they got in a confrontation.
Beatty later said that at first he thought he might be the victim of a road rage incident, but then Orosco and his partner did identify themselves as LAPD.
Orosco fired four shots as Beatty tried to drive away. According to expert testimony, those bullets struck the car at 2 feet, 8 feet, 39, then finally, from nearly 50 feet away.
"It was very clear to us that an unarmed 66-year-old motorist was shot in the back for no good reason -- and we determined that charges would be filed," said Deputy District Attorney John Gilligan, one of the lead prosecutors in the case, told KPCC in 2015.
In 2001, Orosco, who said he was afraid he would be hurt when he shot, took a plea deal. He agreed to a five year prison sentence and conviction for shooting into an occupied car in exchange for prosecutors dropping the rest of the charges.
In a 2015 interview, Beatty said he didn't blame Orosco for what happened.
"I blame the people that taught him how to do this," he said. "I blame the training that he got."
7:20 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the two times officers have been charged in shootings in the past 20 years.
10:20 a.m.: This article was updated to include more information from the sheriff's department policy on shooting at moving vehicles and more quotes from Commander Tardy.
This article was originally published at 6 a.m.
ASK THE REPORTER