A Signal Hill police officer was fired in 2015 for changing his story about what led up to him shooting and wounding a woman who was holding what turned out to be a toy handgun, according to newly released disciplinary files.
In a termination notice sent in 2015, then-Signal Hill Police Chief Michael Langston criticized how officer Justin Murr responded to a call on the city’s border with Long Beach where he discarded the microphone for his patrol car’s dashboard camera and then “played down” his involvement when he talked to investigators after the incident.
This revelation has come to light only now because of SB 1421, a California law that went into effect Jan. 1 rolling back some of California’s strict privacy rules for police officers’ personnel files.
The Long Beach Post obtained the document through the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of more than 30 newsrooms that have partnered to report on the records, which have never before been publicly available.
Long Beach police, who say they’re struggling under a backlog of records requests, have yet to release any disciplinary documents to the Post.
Long Beach police dispatchers got a call on Oct. 21, 2014 around 8 a.m. reporting that a woman was holding a sign and a handgun near Cherry Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway, according to the termination notice from Langston.
Witnesses told investigators from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office that the 40-year-old woman, Sarah Stanley, was acting incoherently and appeared to be high.
It’s not uncommon for SHPD officers to respond to calls that actually fall into LBPD’s jurisdiction and vice versa, according to the notice. Murr responded to the area and saw Stanley on East 19th Street climbing over a fence into the property of Liberty Motel. Murr then got out of his car and stood on a rail to see over the motel fence, where he saw Stanley with what appeared to be a handgun, according to the documents.
When she turned toward Murr and pointed the toy gun, he shot her, wounding her, Langston wrote.
Prior to the shooting, the manager of Liberty Motel, Tony Knox, said he saw Stanley walk through the courtyard “talking to herself, mumbling, nonsense stuff,” holding a pistol, which he thought it was real until he saw it fall in the pool and float, according to the DA’s memo on the incident.
Knox then saw her climb on a pile of mattresses 4 feet high against the fence and try to climb over it. He heard someone say, “Police!” and “Get down!” and saw Stanley walk backward toward an overturned couch near the fence, away from Murr until Knox lost sight of her, the DA’s memo said. Murr ordered Stanley to drop the gun three times, Knox said, and then fired one round, paused, and fired two more rounds.
Murr told the DA investigators that Stanley had popped up from behind the couch holding the gun and he ordered her to drop it twice.
“She was muttering something, I couldn’t understand what she was saying,” Murr told DA investigators. “I told her to drop the gun, at which point she raised it up and pointed it at me.”
According to the DA’s memo, Murr was “in fear for his life,” so he shot her once. When she was still standing and pointing the pistol at him, he fired twice more until she fell behind the couch.
Stanley told detectives at the hospital that she had tried to kill herself by swallowing 30 to 40 pills of Motrin at 6 a.m. the day of the incident and it made her feel drunk. She said she found the plastic toy handgun while she was walking around and took it back with her to the motel.
She only remembered hearing Murr say, “Police!” and when asked if she pointed the gun at anyone, she said, “I didn’t point it at them, I don’t think,” the memo said.
What Murr did wrong
According to the newly revealed disciplinary notice, when Murr responded to the call about Stanley, he didn’t notify Long Beach police or Signal Hill police dispatch that he was going to the call location, despite it being department policy to do so.
“Not until you had confronted the armed suspect and was involved in the OIS, did you finally voice a radio transmission that you had been involved in the OIS,” Langston wrote.
In addition, Langston wrote, Murr didn’t activate the video and audio recording system on his patrol car while responding to the incident, and Murr “discarded” the system’s microphone on the way to the call. Langston wrote he believes this was intentional, but Murr told internal investigators that the system automatically activated on the way and he thought the microphone needed to be charged, so he put it on the charger, the notice said.
Murr activated the recording system only after the shooting, about eight minutes later, the notice said. The system then recorded Murr talking to a responding officer from LBPD, telling the officer that he was only in the area because he had seen Stanley walking up the alley.
Hours later, he changed the story and told sheriff’s department investigators that he had seen Stanley on the fence and realized she matched the description for the call, according to the document.
In April the following year, he told internal investigators that he only drove down the alleyway because of traffic conditions and that he saw Stanley on the fence, but didn’t see anything in her hands and didn’t link her to the call, even though she fit the call description exactly.
Surveillance video from nearby businesses shows that he lied about the traffic conditions and how he came in contact with Stanley, the chief’s memo said. The only statement from Murr that Langston seems to believe is from August 2015, when he told an internal investigator that he didn’t remember saying anything to the LBPD officer.
“That fact is surely true,” Langston wrote. “Had you recalled making that statement and realized it was recorded, you would not have played down your actions to the LASD and (internal) investigators and created a fictional account of your actions to cover for your incompetence, inefficiency and neglect of duty.”
From a criminal standpoint, the District Attorney’s Justice Integrity Division decided Murr’s actions were reasonable and declined to pursue any charges.
Murr, who worked for SHPD for seven and a half years before being fired, declined a request for an interview for this article.
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