Ezzel Ford’s parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles and the individual members of the Los Angeles Police Department who are responsible for Ezzel’s death. The lawsuit alleges that LAPD violated Ezzel’s civil rights when the officers shot and killed him. Ezzel was 25 years old and mentally challenged. His parents are seeking wrongful death damages as well as punitive damages.
The key dispute in the case is whether the officers who shot Ezzel were reasonably defending themselves from Ezzel’s aggressive behavior. An autopsy that has, until now, been withheld from public inspection may provide evidence that will shed light on that issue.
According to the federal lawsuit, Ezzel was walking on West 65th Street and was uninvolved in any crime when two LAPD officers assigned to an anti-gang unit approached him and ordered him to lie on the ground. Ezzel complied with that order.
The two officers fired their weapons, shooting Ezzel three times. An eyewitness said that an officer shot Ezzel in the back while he was on the ground. Another nearby witness heard a police officer shout “shoot him.”
According to neighborhood residents, Ezzel was not involved in gang activity. His mental status, which included schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was well-known in the neighborhood. The lawsuit alleges that it was also known to the officers who shot him.
The LAPD claims that two officers decided to conduct an “investigative stop” of Ezzel. An “investigative stop” is a brief detention of a person to investigate a reasonable suspicion that the person committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime. Why the officers suspected that a lone man walking down a sidewalk was involved in criminal activity is not explained in LAPD’s statement, which refers only to “suspicious movements, including attempting to conceal his hands.”
The police claim that Ezzel turned, grabbed an officer, and that a struggle ensued. They also claim that Ezzel “attempted” to grab that officer’s gun after they fell to the ground. How Ezzel would have been able to unfasten the gun’s safety strap and gain possession of the weapon is unexplained. In any event, the police do not claim that Ezzel actually removed the gun from its holster.
The officer who was not involved in the struggle shot Ezzel. The officer on the ground with Ezzel also shot Ezzel using his “backup weapon.” The LAPD’s statement does not explain why two armed officers were required to use deadly force to subdue an unarmed man. The officers did manage to handcuff Ezzel, but only after firing their fatal shots. No officer sustained a significant injury during the alleged altercation.
A key issue in the dispute is whether Ezzel placed the officers’ lives at risk by struggling for possession of an officer’s gun. The eyewitness accounts and the official LAPD statement offer sharply different accounts of Ezzel’s actions.
The autopsy report could provide evidence that will assist Ezzel’s case. If the autopsy shows that Ezzel was shot in the back by both officers, it will be difficult to concoct a scenario that has Ezzel struggling to obtain a weapon.
On the other hand, the autopsy would cast doubt on eyewitness accounts if the bullets entered the front of Ezzel’s body and exited the back. That circumstance would suggest that Ezzel did not lie down on the sidewalk as witnesses have stated.
Regardless of the autopsy results, however, it will be difficult for LAPD to explain the decision to shoot someone who had not obtained possession of a weapon. The officer who was not involved in the struggle could surely have used lesser force to prevent Ezzel from gaining access to the firearm, even if that is what Ezzel was trying to do.
Investigators for LAPD initially put a “hold” on the release of the autopsy, allegedly to prevent witness statements from being influenced by the autopsy’s contents. Since the only witnesses who would be influenced are those who would testify against LAPD, the decision to restrict access to the report was self-serving. Evidence of a public employee’s misconduct should belong to the general public, not to the police.
The decision to conceal the report raises the suspicion that its contents are not favorable to LAPD. The shooting has been a public relations nightmare for the police department. Outraged members of the South Los Angeles community have gathered to express their frustration over LAPD’s failure to curb the use of excessive force against the African American community. Protest marches have called attention to the Ezzel Ford shooting and to other shootings by officers in South Los Angeles.
If the autopsy results support the LAPD version of Ezzel’s shooting, it is reasonable to believe that the results would have been released immediately to quell protests and to reassure the public that the officers acted appropriately. The community’s demands for information may have prompted Mayor Eric Garcetti to order the release of the autopsy before the end of the year.
Whether the autopsy report will help or hurt Ezzel Ford’s wrongful death case remains to be seen. To be certain that the autopsy results are not tainted, the lawyer representing the Fords intends to obtain an independent autopsy, as well as a ballistics expert and an anatomist who will reconstruct the shooting from the available forensic evidence. If those experts confirm the lawyer’s assertion that the shooting amounts to the execution of an unarmed man, expect LAPD to offer a seven-figure settlement rather than risking an eight-figure jury verdict.
Have you recently lost a loved one as a result of someone else’s negligence? If so, obtaining compensation for the medical expenses as well as lost earnings is likely a necessity for you and your family. To find out more about whether you have a legal right to pursue comepensation call (800) 838-6644. A Timothy J. Ryan & Associates Los Angeles wrongful death lawyer will provide you with a free no obligation consultation to help you learn more about your options and what you can expect moving forward.