By Joel Rubin
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck was sharply critical of how several officers acted during an arrest last year in which a woman died during a prolonged struggle with police, department records released this week show.
In a report to the Police Commission, the civilian board that oversees the LAPD, Beck concluded that a veteran female officer violated department policies when she repeatedly kicked and shoved 35-year-old Alesia Thomas in her genitals and midsection.
The same officer, the chief and commission found, showed "apparent indifference" toward Thomas during the messy effort to restrain her and put her into the back of a police cruiser.
Beck raised concerns as well over the actions of three additional officers and a supervisor during the July 22 confrontation in South L.A. Two of the officers disregarded Thomas' request for medical help, while the third cop may have lied to investigators about the incident, Beck wrote in his report. A sergeant who responded to the scene may have failed to properly supervise the officers, according to the report.
Following the chief's findings, the department opened formal internal investigations, which could result in discipline of the officers and sergeant. The district attorney's office, meanwhile, is reviewing the case for possible criminal charges, said Cmdr. Andy Smith, a spokesman for Beck.
The officers and sergeant have been reassigned to other stations, and all but one have been taken out of the field during the investigations, Smith said. The officers' names have not been released because state law keeps issues related to police misconduct confidential.
In a unanimous vote during a closed-door meeting this week, the five-member commission agreed with the chief's finding that the female officer's forceful use of her feet was "ineffective and inappropriate," according to a commission report.
An autopsy by the Los Angeles County coroner determined that cocaine intoxication probably was "a major factor" in Thomas' death. It was impossible to determine what role, if any, the struggle with the officers played. Because of that uncertainty, the official cause of death was listed as "undetermined."
Last summer, The Times reported on the alleged kicks by the female officer and Thomas' decision to abandon her children outside the LAPD's Southeast area station, which led to the fatal confrontation with police. The chief's report provided details to how events unfolded.
About 1:30 a.m., Thomas, who suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and drug addiction, according to the autopsy report, left her 3-year-old and 12-year-old children outside the station, according to Beck's report. The children walked into the station lobby carrying a basket of clothing and told the officer at the front desk that their grandmother was supposed to pick them up. One of the children handed the officer a piece of paper with a telephone number and the name "Sandra" written on it, the report said.
In earlier accounts, police officials and relatives of Thomas said she was attempting to surrender the children to police custody because she thought she could no longer care for them.
Officers were dispatched to Thomas' home and were instructed to arrest Thomas on suspicion of child endangerment, according to Beck's account.
Thomas resisted as officers tried to place her in handcuffs, and the officers tackled her to the floor to restrain her. Once she was in handcuffs, Thomas asked for an ambulance, but when one of the officers asked her why, she appeared incoherent and asked only for a glass of water, Beck said.
With the sergeant now looking on, the officers carried Thomas down a flight of stairs to the street. The female officer and her partner arrived to assist and the four officers began trying to push and pull Thomas into the back of a patrol car as she continued to struggle.
When Thomas was partially in the back of the patrol car, the female officer on three separate instances delivered a series of kicks or shoves to Thomas in her groin and thighs. She repeatedly swore at Thomas and threatened to kick her if she did not "knock it off," the commission report said. The force from the officer's feet caused Thomas at one point to fall back and scream. When the female officer ordered Thomas to sit up, she stated repeatedly, "I can't," and the officer applied her foot again, according to the report.
Although a video camera in the car captured much of the incident, Beck and the commission said it could not be determined whether the officer maliciously kicked Thomas or was trying to move her further into the car, as the officer said.
Minutes after being in the car with the doors closed, the video shows Thomas losing consciousness. The officers quickly noticed she was unresponsive and called an ambulance. Thomas was dead by the time paramedics brought her to a hospital.
The LAPD has refused requests from The Times for a copy of the video, citing the ongoing investigations.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 the Los Angeles Times