April 2011 Warning Bells Article

Not Perfect Again

I seldom name officers whom I write about in my articles, but this time I am going to make an exception. For one thing, his name is already splashed all over a Los Angeles Times article, and the adjudication of the shooting that he was involved in has been posted on the Police Commission website. I am going to try to tell his side of the story so, hopefully, the inevitable Google searches will at least bring up one article that tries to describe what it was like to be in his shoes.

The officer’s name is Tony Hyong Im. He works Wilshire. He is a PIII now, but will shortly be downgraded as a result of this shooting and, yes, we will appeal. I am not telling any secrets because the categorical use of force findings by the Police Commission examine the incident in great detail on its website and because the Los Angeles Times story quotes its documented sources as “the LAPD’s official review, analysis and findings of the incident, and the Board of Police Commissioners’ findings of the incident.” It also quotes an unidentified “senior official” who wishes to remain anonymous.

The Times article, published on March 1, describes the murder of Flor Medrano, a 30-year-old female who was stabbed to death by her boyfriend. The Times story, as you might imagine, is written from the perspective of the murder victim and is critical of the Department. In the Times’ defense, the reporter did not have access to the officers involved in the incident and it appears he tried to consider all sides of the story. The article, however, neglects or glosses over a couple of the facts that make a huge difference in how Officer Im made decisions as the night in question progressed.

Our use of force policy tells us that the actions of our officers are not to be looked at with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but that is exactly what is happening here. A woman tragically died and the Department microscope came out with the 20/20 hindsight lens firmly attached.

First, let me establish for the record that Tony Im is not your average employee. At the time of the incident, he had 12 years on LAPD. He was recently named Wilshire’s Officer of the Quarter. Officer Im has received 12 bureau commendations, 48 citizen commendations, 80 area commendations, three other Department commendations, 10 other area commendations and two business commendations. He has a commendation that was signed by a member of the Los Angeles City Council for “rare and unwavering courage to go where others dare not go.” The month before the shooting, Im was the divisional leader in calls for service. His commanding officer called him a “productive, competent, tenured officer.”

If this sounds like the epitome of a hardworking, conscientious officer, why is he headed for a downgrade? All it takes is one radio call. In this case, it was “go to the station.”

Another unit had been flagged down by Flor Medrano, who was afraid that her boyfriend was going to kill her. They brought her to the station and started the investigation, but they were too close to end of watch. To save on overtime, Im and his partner were called in to take over the call. It won’t be the first time in this story that concern over overtime will play its part.

Officer Im and his partner spent the next three hours at the station with her. In brief, she had been dating the boyfriend for three months. He was insanely jealous. She tried to break up with him, but he wouldn’t have it. He came over to her apartment and demanded entry. She allowed him in and he raped her. He had also beaten her in the past. To top things off, she said that he carried a gun.

Officer Im took a felony crime report from her at the direction of a detective, and successful efforts were made to identify the boyfriend and obtain his record. While this was going on, the boyfriend kept texting Flor on her cell phone. The officers directed her to set him up for an arrest by arranging a meeting place. She tried. He became suspicious and that attempt fell through.

Then the boyfriend texted that he was at her apartment and was setting things on fire. Flor lives in an apartment building on the second floor. She has a steel door with a deadbolt and barred entrance windows, and she had the only key. The boyfriend had no way to get in, but the officers could not take a chance that the boyfriend was not telling the truth. It did not make any sense that he would be able to get in the apartment, but it did make sense that he was in the area. They had a signed crime felony crime report and plenty of probable cause to book him if they could get their hands on him.

Since the officers were in full uniform and driving a black and white, the detective decided to take the officers with him in his plain car and go have a look. They drove to Flor’s address and parked. The detective decided that since he was in plain clothes he would scout the location while Im and his partner remained close in case the suspect was there. Because they were in uniform, they did their best to stay out of sight.

The detective went up to the second-floor apartment. There was no fire. The lights were out. The steel security door was locked and undamaged and no activity was visible from outside. The boyfriend was lying about starting a fire, but it was logical to believe that he was in the area. The detective and officers returned to the station.

All incidents are handled through a series of small decisions. Each decision affects other decisions in the train of decisions that move to the end of the incident. The Police Commission and Chief of Police had the advantage of knowing how the story ended when they condemned the officers for their tactics. Officer Im did not have that knowledge, which is why the courts and Department policy negate 20/20 hindsight in judging an officer’s actions. Were the decisions reasonable with the knowledge that the officer had at the time that they were made? That is the relevant question.

At this point, Officer Im was focused on getting the boyfriend into custody for terrorist threats, rape and battery. It was logical to believe that the boyfriend could not be in the apartment based on the fact that he was not there when Flor left and locked the steel security door; there was no evidence that the door had been forced, and there was only one key, that Flor had in her possession. Im was familiar with the area and knew that there were no fire escapes on the rear of the buildings. Since Flor lived on the second floor, there was no access to any rear windows.

What Officer Im did not know was that he was dealing with a Spiderman of sorts. The Los Angeles Times printed a photograph of the front of the building. It would have been fairer to print a photo of the rear. The boyfriend was in the area as the officers suspected. He had returned to the apartment after the detective had left and banged on the apartment door. He could not gain access. A neighbor later testified about hearing noises on the roof. To the neighbor’s disbelief, the boyfriend had gained access to the roof and somehow managed to lower himself down a bare wall two stories above the ground and gain access to a bathroom window at the rear of Flor’s apartment. A look at the accompanying photo will give you an idea of how unexpected that would be.

The back of Flor Medrano's building. Her apartment was on the second floor.

From Im’s point of view, the texting indicated that the boyfriend was still around and interested in harming Flor. To him, the solution to the problem was the arrest of the boyfriend. Flor, however, was tired of this and wanted to go home. In fact, she insisted.

The officers tried to talk her into going to a sexual assault shelter, to her mother’s home or even staying the night at Wilshire station, but she would have none of it. She felt safe at the apartment behind the steel door and bars, and she had the only key.

You do not get to arrest the victim. She is free to leave and free not to take your advice. The officers had to deal with her decision.

Officer Im contacted the vice unit. He wanted to circle the place with undercover officers to wait for the boyfriend’s next move, which would logically be to return to the apartment to confront Flor. Vice support was denied. No overtime was available for this. The detective requested permission from the watch commander for Im and his partner to sit on Flor’s apartment for five or six hours. The watch commander gave him two hours, then he wanted them back to their patrol duties. As usual, the division was in need of units on patrol. And so, Officer Im had to do more with less.

His decisions were based on two factors. The first was that the apartment was safe. The second was that the boyfriend was in the area and needed to be arrested. Absent a belief in Spiderman, this reasoning was reasonable.

The officers and Flor formulated a plan. They did not want to alert the boyfriend that she had gone to the police. To provide cover, in case he was in the area, they had Flor go to a McDonald’s (as they followed in a plain car) and get some food in a bag to carry with her. She would then go up to her apartment. If the boyfriend was watching, he would think that she had merely gone out for food.

In the meantime, the officers, handicapped by being in uniform, parked their plain car where they had a full view of Flor’s front door and scrunched down as best they could. Their plan was that if the boyfriend appeared, they would allow him to get in the courtyard, where he could be trapped, and affect the arrest. Obviously, they could not accompany her to the door. The sight of uniforms would ruin the entire plan. Besides, based on their belief of the safety of the apartment, no check was necessary. The boyfriend could not be in there.

They told Flor that they would be outside for two hours, and gave her their personal cell phone number. They told her that if the boyfriend came to her door, she was to call 911. She and they felt she would be safe behind the steel barred door while officers responded. The hole in the plan was the Spiderman exception. He was already there.

All was quiet for the two hours. The officers did not see anyone approach the door, so they phoned Flor to tell her they were leaving. Several attempts resulted in what appeared to be an answer, then a disconnect. Officer Im suspected that the calls were being dropped. It could be the service; it could be a dead battery; it could be a lot of things.

Then they received a call on their cell phone and heard a scream. The officers bolted out of the car and requested a backup as they ran up to the door. The door now kept them out. It was quiet. Had they heard a scream, or was Flor contacted again by the boyfriend over the phone and was screaming at him?

Im told the probationer to cancel the backup. He did not want his fellow Wilshire officers overdriving to help him. He knew they would come anyway, just slower. Then another scream. He told his partner to put out the backup out again.

He looked through the window and saw Flor backing up into the living room. He saw blood on her. He saw the boyfriend advancing with a knife. He began shouting orders, but he had no clear shot — she was in the way. The boyfriend stabbed Flor and she went down. There was the clear shot. He fired, and the boyfriend went down.

He reached through the bars and the window trying to reach the inside lock on the steel door to get in to help Flor. It was too far. “Sweetie, come to me,” he implored. “Come to me and open the door.” She tried; she crawled, but she couldn’t make it. Other units were there almost immediately. A crowbar was brought by one of the officers, and the door was pried open. It was too late. He was heartbroken.

It didn’t take long for the microscope to come out. You can read all of the criticisms in the Times and on the Police Commission’s website. They need not be repeated here and there is not enough space. Nothing was overlooked, including Officer Im’s magazine being one bullet light.

The failure to get an emergency protective order was cited, but it is a red herring. The boyfriend was arrestable on sight. There was no need to get a judge to issue an order, serve the boyfriend and then arrest him if he violated the order. Any officer could arrest him immediately for terrorist threats and rape on probable cause. The detective would have an arrest warrant the next day at any rate.

Bratton used to say that “if you are in the right, we will back you up — the benefit of the doubt goes to you. If you are wrong, we will retrain you.” Officer Im was wrong in the sense that he failed to anticipate a Spiderman, but who would?

You can also throw in various other things that, in hindsight, one can wish were done differently. But the point of the philosophy expounded by Bratton is that mistakes made while an officer is trying to do the right thing are far different from officers deliberately breaking the rules.

The L.A. County Domestic Violence Counsel and the Domestic Violence Death Review Team both gave commendations to Officer Im for his efforts. After all, he did remain exposed in a window to cover Flor in the presence of a suspect whom he had been told was carrying a gun, along with all the other things done that night to try to protect Flor and arrest the boyfriend. No one can dispute that Officer Im was at least stepping up to the plate to try and help Flor Medrano.

Using 20/20 hindsight, it is hard not to think that he would have been better off if he had just taken a report and gone back out on patrol. But 20/20 hindsight shouldn’t be used by anyone.

And what about the 140-plus commendations, Officer of the Quarter and highest radio call recap of the month? The Department position seems to be “what have you done for me lately?” The Department should hear warning bells. The answer from the troops may be “nothing, it’s not worth taking the chance.”

Be legally careful out there.

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