Video released of controversial Los Angeles arrest
Prosecutors agreed to a deal that allowed Officer Richard Garcia plead no contest and avoid jail time if he did community service, followed all laws, and donated $500 to charity
By Kate Mather
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES —The video shows a Los Angeles police officer rushing toward the middle of the South L.A. street where two officers were holding a man on the ground.
Officer Richard Garcia swings his right leg and kicks the man hard near his head. Over the next 10 seconds, the video shows Garcia knee the man in the back, and elbow and punch him in the head.
As the other officers stand up and move away, Garcia presses his knee into the man's back for more than two minutes, stopping only when other officers come to help pick up the handcuffed man and drag him toward a patrol car.
For nearly two years, the video of the October 2014 arrest has been repeatedly cited by police and prosecutors as they denounced Garcia's actions, sought discipline against him and charged him with felony assault. But the department refused to make the recording public, even after prosecutors agreed in May to a plea deal that spared Garcia jail time.
The Times, however, obtained a three-minute recording of the arrest under an order from an L.A. County Superior Court judge. The video had been introduced as evidence in the criminal case against Garcia.
Clinton Alford Jr.'s arrest mirrored similar video-recorded encounters between African Americans and officers across the country that have prompted heated criticism. Whether to release such recordings has become a crucial issue, particularly as departments add more cameras on officers' uniforms and in their patrol cars as a way to build public trust.
The LAPD generally does not make those recordings public, a position that has been criticized as the department deploys thousands of body cameras to officers. Chief Charlie Beck, who has said he was shocked by the video of Garcia's actions, has also argued that releasing the videos outside of court could jeopardize criminal and disciplinary investigations, and could violate the privacy of people caught on camera.
The video of Alford's arrest was captured by a security camera at a nearby factory and has been a key piece of evidence against Garcia.
The officer told LAPD investigators that he kicked Alford in the shoulder and used other force to help control him as he resisted police. His attorney has said his client used a reasonable level of force and never should have been prosecuted.
At a preliminary hearing in December, attorney Robert Rico argued that one of Alford's hands was under his body and that he "still posed a threat," according to court transcripts.
The prosecutor, however, disagreed.
"From the get-go, Mr. Alford -- you can see in the video -- does not threaten the officers in any way, shape or form," Deputy Dist. Atty. Oscar Plascencia told the judge.
Alford's hands are obscured during about half of the video by the two officers who held him down, including when Garcia strikes him. After the other officers move away, Alford barely moves as Garcia presses his knee into Alford's back.
Garcia is the only officer seen on the video punching, elbowing or slamming into Alford. The recording shows another officer later kick at Alford's legs to separate them, then stand on Alford's ankles -- a move Beck also criticized.
A woman who worked at the factory where the camera was mounted testified in court that she was alarmed by what she saw that day. Citlali Alvarado was inside the building, near a monitor showing the recording, when she saw an officer kick and elbow a man on the ground.
"I didn't think it was a proper action," Alvarado said. "The victim was already held down."
Soon after, a handful of officers came into the factory and asked whether there were any cameras, Alvarado testified.
Two of the officers laughed as they watched the video, Alvarado said.
Garcia faced up to three years in jail if convicted of the felony assault charge. Earlier this year, prosecutors quietly agreed to a deal that allowed him to plead no contest and avoid jail time if he completes community service, follows all laws, stays away from Alford and donates $500 to a charity by late May 2017.
Under the agreement, Garcia, 35, could then enter a new plea to a misdemeanor charge that would replace the felony and would be placed on two years of probation. If he doesn't appear in court, he could be sentenced to jail.
Some have criticized the move as too lenient, including those who saw the video for the first time Monday.
"If this encounter didn't result in more serious criminal penalties, what would?" said Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "It raises serious questions whether the D.A. -- even in those cases where they file charges -- [is] being vigorous enough to hold the officers accountable."
Matt Johnson, the president of the Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the LAPD, said that what he saw was "not only out of policy, but unlawful and at odds with our mission to build more trust between the LAPD and communities of color."
"I am personally disappointed that Mr. Garcia is not going to be serving jail time and will have the opportunity to have his conviction reduced to a misdemeanor," Johnson said in a statement.
Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey declined an interview request through a spokeswoman Monday. She defended the agreement earlier this month, telling The Times that although she didn't handle Garcia's case personally, she felt the deal was appropriate given the evidence examined by prosecutors. She declined to detail the reasons for the plea but cautioned that video "doesn't tell the whole story sometimes."
Lacey also declined to say whether pending criminal charges filed against Alford influenced her office's decision. Court records show that Alford, 24, was arrested last year and faces charges including pimping, rape and assault with a deadly weapon. He has pleaded not guilty and remains in custody.
Assault cases against on-duty law enforcement officers often prove difficult for prosecutors, not least because the law generally gives police wide latitude to use force. In December, a jury acquitted an LAPD officer accused of using excessive force when he repeatedly struck a man with a baton while detaining him near Staples Center in 2012.
But former LAPD Officer Mary O'Callaghan served about 7 1/2 months in jail after a jury convicted her last year of assault under color of authority. Prosecutors accused her of kicking a woman in the crotch during an arrest in South L.A. The victim, whose assault was captured on a patrol car camera, later died.
Officers charged with felony assault often avoided jail time when they negotiated plea deals with prosecutors rather than risk a trial, according to a Times review of court and district attorney records.
In 2013, for example, Sheriff's Deputy Matthew John Funicello was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to undergo counseling after he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of assault under color of authority. Funicello, who was originally charged with a felony, had been accused of punching a 19-year-old man several times.
Since Alford's arrest, Garcia has been ordered to stay at home, an LAPD spokesman said. He was relieved of duty without pay in March and is now awaiting what is known as a Board of Rights hearing, in which a three-person panel decides disciplinary cases for officers who usually face termination or lengthy suspensions.
The spokesman said the three other officers involved are no longer with the department, but did not elaborate. Johnson confirmed that the officers weren't with the department "as a result of this incident."
The events leading up to the assault charge against Garcia began shortly after noon on Oct. 16, 2014. Alford previously told The Times he was riding his bicycle along Avalon Boulevard when a car pulled up and a man yelled at him to stop. Someone grabbed the back of his bike, he said, so he jumped off and ran.
Authorities later said police were investigating a robbery and that Alford matched the description of the suspect.
After a short chase, two police officers caught up to Alford. The video shows one officer swinging his baton at Alford, who ducks and moves to the ground. Alford gets on his stomach, spreads his arms out and starts to move them behind his back as the officers grab his hands to cuff them.
Then a police car rushes up. The video shows Garcia getting out and running directly toward Alford before delivering the blows.
Garcia and another officer told investigators that Alford refused their orders and resisted after he was on the ground, according to a report from Beck made public last fall. Garcia said he punched and elbowed Alford to "cause Alford discomfort" and later used his knee to hit him because he thought Alford was reaching toward his shorts for a weapon.
After viewing the video, Beck concluded the officer's actions were not reasonable "given Alford's limited and unapparent resistance," his report said. The chief and Police Commission determined Garcia violated department rules during the arrest. Seven months later, prosecutors charged him with assault.
At the time, Beck told reporters that he understood the public interest in the video but insisted that releasing the recording could jeopardize the criminal case against Garcia. After the officer agreed to his plea deal with prosecutors, The Times requested a copy of the recording from the LAPD under the California Public Records Act.
Last week, the LAPD denied that petition, saying it considered the video an investigative record exempt from disclosure. A day later, Superior Court Judge William N. Sterling granted The Times' request for the video.