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LA Police Refuse to Release Information on In-Custody Deaths, Community Pushes Back

The LAPD refuses to release autopsy reports and the names of officers involved in the deaths of Ezell Ford and Omar Abrego in South Central Los Angeles, frustrating a community already mistrustful of police.

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Community activists continue to push the Los Angeles Police Department for transparency after two unarmed men died within days of each other as a result of violent stops by LAPD officers. But to date, no information has been given.

Ezell Ford, 25, and Omar Abrego, 37, died on August 11 and August 2, respectively. Police placed a “security hold” on the autopsy reports of both men on August 15, meaning neither report will be released to the public until the hold is lifted. As of now, the LAPD has not released the names of the officers involved. The deaths happened within blocks of each other, and community outrage coincided with civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after police there shot unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown to death on August 9. Anger in Los Angeles has taken the form of peaceful marches and rallies seeking legal action against the officers involved.

Keyanna Celina and community members rally in front of LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey's office on Thursday, August 21, demanding criminal charges for LAPD officers that killed unarmed Ezell Ford and Omar Abrego. (Photo: Bethania Palma Markus)Keyanna Celina and community members rally in front of LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s office on Thursday, August 21, demanding criminal charges for LAPD officers that killed unarmed Ezell Ford and Omar Abrego. (Photo: Bethania Palma Markus)“It’s an outrage and a disgrace; they’re abusing their power,” said Keyanna Celina from the Coalition for Community Control Over the Police. “There’s nothing democratic about a family being denied the autopsy report and the officers’ names.”

LAPD Officer Bruce Borihanh of the media relations division said the department was not going to answer further questions on the two cases and referred to the press releases on its website.

“One reason the names aren’t being released is officer safety and their families’ safety has to be assessed. The officers’ safety hasn’t been assessed,” he said. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck makes the executive decision on releasing the officers’ names.

It remained unclear why security holds were placed on the autopsy reports, or why the holds were placed days, or in Abrego’s case, two weeks after the deaths. LA County Coroner Asst. Chief Ed Winter said law enforcement or judges can send a letter requesting the holds, but don’t have to say why they are needed. They can be in place for months or even years.

“Nicole Simpson is still on hold to this day,” he said. Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered 20 years ago, and her autopsy report has since been on hold by Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the murder trial.

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, an open government advocacy group, said the only legal basis for withholding autopsy reports “is that the death is under criminal investigation. There’s nothing in the law about a ‘security hold.'”

He cited case law Dixon v. Superior Court, in which the court found exempting an autopsy report from public disclosure was necessary only when “public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighed the public interest in disclosure.”

Steven Lerman, attorney for Ezell Ford’s family, said he sent Chief Beck a letter asking him what legal code allowed him to maintain a hold on a completed autopsy report. He has yet to receive a written response.

“I think it’s because of the public pressure. A lot of times these things happen in the dark and there’s no community presence and there are no protests or actions and there’s no public awareness of it,” Celina said. “The community has continued to maintain a peaceful presence demanding answers and for that reason we believe there is more pressure on them.”

Lerman will file a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging the wrongful death of Ezell Ford by the LAPD, and would say only, “As a result of my investigation, I’m completely convinced it was an unjustified use of force.” He called Ford’s death a “horrifying loss for this family.” Lerman successfully represented Rodney King in his federal lawsuit against the city police department.

Community activists rallied on August 21 outside the criminal court building in downtown Los Angeles, where Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s office is housed, and demanded charges be filed against the officers involved. They had hoped to meet face-to-face with Lacey, but her public relations team met with them in the hallway outside the elevator and told them she was out of town.

While the district attorney’s PR staff assured the activists their office takes these cases seriously, took a list of names and contact information for families whose members have been killed by police officers and gave them cards with an email address they could send their concerns to, Celina said being made to sit on a bench in an open hallway by the elevators was “demeaning.”

“I would say, personally, that if that is how they received us, sitting on a bench next to the elevator like children waiting for their parents, then I can’t imagine how the families of loved ones are treated,” she said.

Los Angeles County DA spokeswoman Jane Robison said the DA’s office has not yet received the case from the LAPD, because the police department is still doing their own investigation. Once the DA’s office gets the case, it will be turned over to the Justice System Integrity Division, which handles police officer misconduct investigations.

There’s wide space between stories told by eyewitnesses and those told by police in both cases, and Celina said the community doesn’t have much trust in the LAPD or that their investigation will be unbiased. The refusal to release information has exacerbated that mistrust, she said.

A witness told local station KTLA that Ezell Ford, who family members have described to the media as mentally disabled, was lying down when he was shot multiple times by officers in the back. More eyewitnesses have come forward to reporters, one telling The Huffington Post that Ford was on the ground and one of the officers shouted “shoot him” before he was killed. Police contend officers from the department’s Newton Area Gang Enforcement Detail “attempted to talk” to Ford (in an earlier release they called it an “investigative stop“) who continued walking. They got closer and police say he grabbed one of them, then wrestled to the ground and attempted to grab one of the officer’s guns, according to the LAPD official press release, and at that point both officers opened fire.

Two witnesses also told local news station KTLA they saw officers striking Abrego repeatedly, and one said the beating lasted 10 minutes. A grainy video shows Abrego being held face down over a pool of blood. It appears he is crying out in distress. Police contend two officers also from the department’s Newton Area Gang Enforcement Detail stopped Abrego because he was driving erratically. After they stopped him, he tried to run away, according to LAPD’s official media statement. A “physical altercation” took place, resulting in a “laceration” and an ambulance was called.

Celina said if the DA’s office doesn’t file charges, her organization plans to go over their heads and seek them from State Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office and if necessary, will go higher than that.

“It takes a lot, so much to raise a child. It takes only a second for them to take them away,” she said. “There’re no words to describe it. You put so much into raising your child and keeping them on the right path. Then to have them gunned down by the people who are supposed to be protecting and serving, it’s the opposite of civilization.”

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