Long Beach rarely finds officers broke department rules in police shootings

Editor’s note: This story is part of the California Reporting Project, a statewide collaboration among dozens of newsrooms to report on police use-of-force and misconduct.

A new law is forcing Long Beach police to release previously hidden records, and one of the first files revealed gives a glimpse at the department’s internal oversight process in police shootings.

In a 30-page document released Thursday, the LBPD provided a brief overview of each of the 35 times officers intentionally fired their guns at someone over the past five and a half years.

The document includes a few sentences summarizing each shooting and the LBPD’s decision about whether officers followed department rules when they pulled the trigger.

In the vast majority of cases, police officials decided officers acted within policy.

Since the beginning of 2014, only one of the 66 officers who fired had police brass refer his case to internal affairs, according to the document. In that case, IA investigators were instructed to look into whether he used excess force when he wounded a man.

In every other case, officers were found to be “in policy” or a decision was still pending. There were also three incidents where citizen complaints sparked further investigation, but none of them resulted in any discipline for officers.

However, a stamp of “in policy” does not mean police brass approved of everything their employees did. For instance, in 2015 the chief barred an officer from returning to patrol duty until he went through retraining after shooting an unarmed man in the back through an apartment window.

Hector Morejon (left) was shot in the back through a window by a Long Beach police officer in 2015. File photo.

In that same case, the department also ordered retraining for the two detectives assigned to investigate the shooting. The chief decided they needed training on “interview/interrogation techniques, specifically when questioning another Police Office,” the document says.

In another instance, police re-worded their policies to make sure all officers knew they must wear their body cameras or tell a supervisor they were malfunctioning after investigators learned officers weren’t wearing theirs during a 2017 foot-chase that ended in a shooting.

A new window into police policy

Although the document gives only brief summaries of each incident, the information it provides is significant.

Until the beginning of this year, the LBPD routinely refused to reveal its decisions about whether officers acted in or out of department policy. They argued California’s strong privacy protections for officers prevented them from disclosing those details.

But a new law, SB 1421, which went into effect on Jan. 1, mandated departments publicly reveal that information and scores of other records having to do with officer misconduct or use-of-force.

Long Beach has yet to release any detailed accounts of misconduct or police shootings in response to records requests from the Long Beach Post and other media organizations, but they released the 30-page summary this week to KPCC, which shared it with the Long Beach Post as part of a collaborative project among newsrooms to report on the newly revealed files.

The summary is the most detailed document Long Beach has released about police shootings since the passage of the new law.

Is this good news or bad news?

The fact that Long Beach police almost universally found shootings to be “in-policy” shows flaws in the department’s review process, critics argue.

Attorneys who have sued the LBPD over police shootings say the internal investigations skew in favor of officers. For instance, they point to the fact that officers are almost never interviewed by investigators as any other witness would be.

Instead, officers write reports that investigators can ask them to clarify or rewrite before they’re finalized, a practice a federal judge once called “very odd,” according to court records.

Long Beach, however, points out that its number of police shootings has plummeted recently.

There were four officer-involved shootings in 2018, down from nine in 2015—the highest point over the last five years. So far this year, only one person has been shot by an officer, and that was accidental, according to the department.

Police credit that drop to an intense internal review process and training in “communication strategies, de-escalation techniques, and less-lethal force options.”

“We also understand that in some circumstances, no matter the alternative measures taken by an officer, a use of force may still occur,” LBPD Sgt. Josh Brearley said.

The single IA investigation

The lone case police brass referred to internal affairs involved a chaotic scene that unfolded when officers tried to arrest several murder and robbery suspects.

On Sept. 11, 2016, a team of detectives surrounded a strip mall at Pacific Coast Highway and Lemon Avenue where they’d tracked two men and a 17-year-old boy wanted in a recent gang-crime spree.

When they swooped in, two people fled on foot, and a third person tried to drive off, according to police’s account.

Two different officers opened fire during the chaos when they thought two different suspects were reaching for their waistbands, according to the summary document.

Police ruled one officer, Thomas Brown, acted within policy, but they asked internal affairs to take a closer look at Det. Bobby Anguiano to see if his actions constituted excessive force.

Devon Thomas, the man Anguiano shot and wounded, had nothing to do with the crime spree, according to a lawsuit Thomas filed. He’d just grabbed a pizza from the Little Caesars and was in the back seat of a nearby car when police swarmed, the man’s attorney said in 2017.

The IA investigation into Anguiano is still pending. The summary document released this week doesn’t show any final disposition or end date.

Thomas’ lawsuit, however, is over. In April, Long Beach paid out $750,000 to settle the case.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children.
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