Calls for oversight renewed after fatality in Calif. hostage standoff
Mistaken killing of a man has sparked new debate over how much authority the department's independent inspector general should have in investigations
By Catherine Saillant and Jeff Gottlieb
Los Angeles Times
PICO RIVERA, Calif. — The mistaken killing of a Pico Rivera man by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy during a hostage standoff — the second such death in four months — has sparked new debate over how much authority the department's independent inspector general should have in investigating deputy conduct.
Frank Mendoza, 54, was shot when a deputy mistook him for an armed suspect who had broken into the Mendoza home late Friday afternoon, authorities said. The gunman, 24-year-old Cedric Ramirez, took Mendoza's wife captive and held her until a tactical team entered the house and fatally shot him eight hours later, authorities said. The wife was unharmed.
The case is now under investigation by the Sheriff's Department's internal affairs unit as well as the district attorney and coroner, as is customary in officer-involved shootings.
But Max Huntsman, the new civilian monitor in the Sheriff's Department, said Sunday the case underscores the need for his unit to also review all records, including a deputy's personnel files, in deciding whether the department does a thorough job investigating.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed Huntsman after a series of scandals in the department, which culminated with federal charges against sheriff's officials over alleged inmate abuse in the jail system.
The Sheriff's Department and Huntsman are still negotiating how much access the inspector general should have.
Interim Sheriff John L. Scott has been resistant to granting access to deputies' personnel files, citing legal concerns about confidentiality, said Huntsman, a veteran prosecutor appointed to the inspector general's post last year.
Scott could not be reached for comment Sunday. But in a letter to the Board of Supervisors last month, he urged "safeguards against overzealous review" by civilian overseers.
The supervisors on Tuesday are expected to consider establishing a long-debated civilian oversight commission to serve as the public's eyes and ears on departmental matters. Granting the inspector general authority to review personnel files should be part of the discussion, Huntsman said.
Huntsman said his office will be closely involved with internal investigations that are underway in the Pico Rivera case.
The inspector general cannot conduct an independent investigation without access to the deputy files. But the office will review the sheriff's inquiries to "make sure they are done in a correct way," Huntsman said. If better training or changes to in-field tactics are necessary, his office will follow up with recommended changes, he said.
Huntsman had no comment on the specifics of the shooting. But he noted that deputies often have seconds to make a life-or-death decision based on spotty information and rapidly changing events.
"We have to come up with the best possible tools for them to have a better outcome," Huntsman said. "It's a very difficult thing to do.
We have tragic outcomes when people are being pushed to their limits and have seconds to react."
Sheriff's officials said deputies tried to arrest Ramirez around 5 p.m. Friday on parole violations when he fled. He exchanged gunfire with deputies before breaking into the Mendoza home in the 9000 block of Rosehedge Drive, officials said.
As deputies rushed through the front door and began evacuating the home's residents, Mendoza appeared in the doorway and a deputy shot him twice, mistaking him for the fleeing suspect, sheriff's officials said.
When deputies realized their mistake, they tried to aid Mendoza, Chief of Detectives Bill McSweeney said, but he was dead by the time paramedics reached him.
McSweeney said the deputy who fired at Mendoza was an 11-year veteran with "a very fine record." He declined to release the deputy's name.
On Sunday, someone planted a small, plastic cross in the frontyard of the Mendoza home. A bouquet of flowers lay on the front steps, not far from a rusted swing.
The front door was hung with a plastic sheet as a cleanup crew went about their work. Deputies in cruisers were parked near the home throughout the day.
Connie Monge, 83, said she has lived next door to Mendoza and his wife for 30 years. Frank Mendoza was a baker and liked to tinker with cars, but was a private man who stayed to himself, she said.
On Friday night, she and her son heard the "pop, pop, pop" of bullets and watched in disbelief as helicopters swarmed overhead for hours. Learning that Mendoza had been killed was devastating, she said.
"I can't get over it," Monge said. "I close my eyes and see his face. I can't believe they shot him. That man was a good man."
The incident comes four months after John Winkler, a TV production assistant, was hit in the chest when three deputies fired on him as he and another hostage rushed out of an apartment unit where they were being held. A second hostage was shot in the leg but survived.
In that case, a sheriff's official said Winkler fit the general description of the suspect as he ran out of the apartment. When deputies realized that a fight was still taking place inside the unit, they ran in and subdued the suspect, who was attacking a third man.
In that shooting, the suspect, 27-year-old Alexander McDonald, and Winkler, 30, were close in age and build. In the Pico Rivera incident, the suspect was 30 years younger than the man killed by the sheriff's deputy.
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