07/23/2008

Controversy heats up in L.A. shooting

Related article: Calif. officer involved in second fatal shooting

By Thomas Watkins
The Associated Press


Neighobors Sue Williams, right, and Annette Whitson, standing across from the apartment of Kevin Wicks, discuss his shooting Monday, July 21, 2008, in Inglewood, Calif. Inglewood police officers responding to a family disturbance call, say they shot the man after he came to the door with a gun. (AP Photo/Ric Francis)

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Friends and relatives of Kevin Wicks didn't accept the official explanation of why police fatally shot him when they were called to his apartment building.

Now they question why the officer who pulled the trigger was even there in the first place - just two months after being involved in another fatal shooting.

Officer Brian Ragan, a five-year veteran of the Inglewood Police Department, was placed on leave for the second time in 10 weeks after shooting Wicks early Monday. Those who knew the 38-year-old Wicks said he was a kind, gentle man who never had a problem with police, and they called for a federal probe into his death.

Ragan is still under investigation for a May 11 shooting in which he and his partner fired multiple rounds at a car, killing 19-year-old passenger Michael Byoune. Police said at the time the officers believed the car was heading toward them and that gunshots were coming from within.

Officials said the officers apparently did not identify themselves before opening fire. The car's occupants were unarmed.

Byoune and his companions were fleeing the same gunfire that had drawn Ragan and his partner to the scene, said Byoune's cousin, John Benoit, 29.

"They put him back on duty after he did that?" Benoit said Tuesday of Ragan. "It's crazy."

In Monday's shooting, officers responding to a report of a family disturbance said Wicks pointed a gun at them as he answered his door. His family claims that officers had gone to the wrong apartment, which police deny.

While it's not uncommon for an officer to return to the streets after a shooting, it's rare to be involved in another one so soon.

"I've never heard of (that)," said Randolph McLaughlin, a civil rights lawyer and professor at the Pace University School of Law in White Plains, N.Y.

Law enforcement agencies say officers frequently return to duty soon after a use-of-force investigation has begun.

Officer Ana Aguirre, a Los Angeles Police Department spokeswoman, said officers are typically taken off the street for between two weeks and a month, even though investigations are often not completed for at least a year.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said deputies are often removed from the field for five days following an incident involving a firearm.

And Detective Brian Sessa, a New York Police Department spokesman, said officers could be returned to the street while an investigation is ongoing, though the exact timing depends on the situation.

Ragan had been returned to duty in part because he had been cleared by a psychologist, said Capt. Eve Irvine, commanding officer of the Inglewood Police Department's detective bureau.

Ralph Stein, a former police officer who currently teaches law at Pace University, said it's understandable that police departments would want to return officers to duty.

"If the facts of the shooting tend to indicate on its face that it was justifiable, I don't find it unusual at all," Stein said. "Most of the time, they are making split-second decisions where second-guessing is easy. They've got to decide right on the spot."

Still, some residents of Inglewood, a city of about 110,000 in Los Angeles County, are calling for an independent investigation into its Police Department, which has been involved in several high-profile incidents in recent years, including a videotaped encounter in which an officer was seen punching a handcuffed, 16-year-old suspect and slamming him into a car.

Others called police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks' leadership into question.

"I just don't feel she is doing a good job," said Stephanie Reed, 37. "If she is not doing what she's got to do, she's got to step down."

Addressing the City Council on Tuesday night, Seabrooks said she understood the community's concerns but urged people not to rush to judgment.

At least 200 residents attended the meeting, many expressing anger about the shooting, while others drew applause from the audience after demanding that Seabrooks quit.

"I'm hoping for your resignation," Fred Carter, the father of Wicks' girlfriend, told Seabrooks. "We are hurting and it's because of you."

A call to Mayor Roosevelt Dorn's office seeking comment was not immediately returned.

Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit police oversight organization, said Wicks' death is part of a wider pattern of questionable shootings at the Inglewood Police Department.

"The number of incidents and the questionable nature of those incidents leads me to believe the time may be right for an outside independent investigation," Bobb said.

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