Two Los Angeles police officers acted in self-defense and will not face criminal charges after fatally shooting a mentally ill black man during a struggle over an officer’s gun in 2014, prosecutors said Tuesday.
The finding from the Los Angeles district attorney’s office comes more than a year after a police oversight board found the officers had no legal reason to stop 25-year-old Ezell Ford, violating department policy.
But prosecutors said Los Angeles Police Department officers Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas were in fear for their lives and acted lawfully when they shot Ford on Aug. 11, 2014, as Ford struggled with Wampler over the officer’s holstered gun. The shooting happened days after that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and led to a series of Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles.
“The question is did they honestly believe that Mr. Ford was about to take out the gun and shoot them, and there (are) a lot of facts that indicate that they did,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in an interview Tuesday.
Authorities said the officers had approached Ford, whose family has said he struggled with an array of mental illnesses, after seeing him in a known gang area, telling him they wanted to speak with him. Ford, they said, began walking away, but the officers believed he was trying to discard an illegal substance. Prosecutors said Wampler placed his hands on Ford’s shoulders before Ford spun around and grabbed the officer at the waist.
Both Wampler and Ford fell to the ground and started tussling as Ford tried to grab Wampler’s gun from the holster on his waist, prosecutors said.
Villegas shot Ford twice during the struggle, but Ford continued to fight with Wampler, Lacey said. Wampler was eventually able to retrieve his backup weapon, which was affixed to his bulletproof vest, reached around Ford’s body and shot him once in the back, she said.
“This was not some officer who deliberately took out a gun and said, ‘I’m going to shoot Mr. Ford.’ This was a struggle on the ground, for a couple of minutes, that was very tense,” Lacey said. One of the most compelling witnesses, she said, told investigators they heard an officer shouting, “Let go of my gun!”
Lacey said she called Ford’s mother Tuesday morning before her office released a report on the shooting and told her they would not be bringing criminal charges against the officers. She said Ford’s mother was very upset and that it “felt like she was reliving it all over again.”
“My son was unarmed. He was murdered, and there will be no justice,” Ford’s mother, Tritobia Ford, told reporters as tears streamed down her face. “These officers get off scot-free. They just got away with murder. There is no justice for Ezell.”
She said the shooting was unjustified and wants the two officers removed from the police force. A police department spokesman said both officers were working “in an administrative capacity” but declined to comment further.
The Los Angeles Police Commission ruled in June 2015 that the officers had no reason to stop and question Ford, and that violation of department policy led to an altercation that ended with Ford’s death. The commission found that Wampler was unjustified in shooting Ford and Villegas was wrong to draw his weapon but acted appropriately in firing it because he believed Wampler’s life was in danger.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the officers’ union, said in a statement Tuesday that it agreed with Lacey’s findings and that officers must be able to protect themselves and the public.
In October, Ford’s family reached a tentative settlement in a state civil rights lawsuit they brought against the city.