The City Council is set next week to consider acontroversial $4.5-million settlement payment to a man paralyzed in 2005 whenLos Angeles police officers shot the unarmed suspect during a foot chase, a
shooting that a jury ruled was unjustified.
The case has pitted Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LAPD ChiefCharlie Beck and some members of the City Council against City Attorney CarmenTrutanich, who negotiated the settlement.
The case involves a police chase that ensued after RobertContreras, then 19, drove a van from the scene of a drive-by shooting in South Los
Angeles. Contreras and two others abandoned the van and tookoff on foot about four blocks from the shooting.
Officers Julio Benevides and Mario Flores reported seeingContreras jump out of the van with a gun and chased him, then fired on thesuspect.
Contreras was shot first in the ankle and subsequentlymultiple times in the side and back as he turned toward the officers. He washolding a cell phone, but no gun was found.
An internal police department review concluded the officers’decision to shoot was the right one.
Contreras, who was paralyzed from the waist down but withlimited use of his arms, was convicted in 2009 of participating in the drive-byshooting and served prison time before being released on parole last year.
He filed a federal lawsuit against the city in February2011, alleging
the officers violated his civil rights. Lawyers forContreras argued the
shooting was “excessive and unreasonable under thecircumstances,” and violated his right to a reasonable search and seizureunder the Fourth Amendment, according to the complaint. A jury in Februaryruled unanimously against the city.
Trutanich’s office negotiated the $4.5-million settlementwith Contreras to avoid a second court phase to determine damages owed by thecity, a figure that could be as high as $12 million, according to one source.
“It could always be more. That’s why you settle,” Chief Deputy City
Attorney William Carter said. “The jury ruled againstus. Their lawyer is
asking for a lot of money.” He declined to give anexact figure.
The case has posed a difficult question for lawmakers andVillaraigosa: protect the city’s budget, which is already facing a $220 milliondeficit, and agree to pay millions of dollars to an accomplice in a shooting,or defend the police officers’ response with an appeal and risk more legal feesand having to pay out more money in damages.
The City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee chaired byCouncilman Paul Krekorian voted unanimously during a closed session on Mondayto oppose the settlement. Councilmen Mitch Englander, Tony Cardenas, PaulKoretz and Bill Rosendahl are also on the committee.
“It would be a cold day in hell when I would besupportive of giving a
boatload of money to somebody who is involved in shooting atthe citizens of Los Angeles,”Krekorian said. “I just think it’s fundamentally wrong.”
Krekorian said the case sends the wrong message to policeofficers.
“We have almost 10,000 men and women in the policedepartment, who on any given day could be put in a similar situation and couldbe faced with a life or death circumstance,” Krekorian said. “Itwould send the wrong message to those officers if we said, despite all yourtraining . . . if you shoot and a jury finds that somehow you violated thecivil rights of the suspect of the case, we’re going to roll over and do whatthe jury says is right rather than what we think is right.”
Krekorian said he spoke with Villaraigosa and Beck, whooppose the
settlement, which the council will consider on Tuesday orWednesday.
“The mayor agrees with Councilman Krekorian that theclaims board made a mistake in concurring with the city attorney that the$4.5-million settlement to a man convicted for participating in a drive-byshooting was appropriate,” Villaraigosa’s Senior Press SecretaryPeter Sanders said. “Given the facts in this case, we’d rather take ourchances on appeal.”
Beck said the department stands by the officers’ decisionto shoot
Contreras. He cited decisions by the department’s Office ofthe Inspector General investigation and the Board of Police Commissioners thatthe shooting was within department policy.