LOS ANGELES (AP) — A deputy with the nation’s largest sheriff’s department was charged Tuesday with voluntary manslaughter in what a prosecutor said was the “unjustified and unreasonable” fatal shooting of an unarmed man — a move that marked the first time in more than 18 years a police officer in the massive county has been charged in an on-duty shooting.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s Deputy Luke Liu pleaded not guilty in the shooting death of 26-year-old Francisco Garcia. Liu’s bond was set at $1.1 million.
“We believe the officer’s use of deadly force was unjustified and unreasonable under the circumstances,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement.
Liu was on patrol in February 2016 when he pulled behind a car at a gas station that he thought may have been stolen and approached the driver, Garcia, according to prosecutors. Liu went toward the back of the car, and when he returned to the front seconds later, Garcia began to drive away at about 5 mph (8 kph), they said.
That’s when Liu pulled his gun, ran alongside the car and fired seven shots at Garcia, hitting him four times, prosecutors said. At the time, sheriff’s officials said Liu opened fire because he saw Garcia reach for something in the backseat. They said he was hit by the car, suffering minor injuries.
Evidence in the case includes multiple witness statements and video, they said.
Liu, a 10-year veteran of the force who has been on desk duty since the shooting, was placed on administrative leave Monday, the sheriff’s department said in a statement.
“The (department) has complete confidence in the criminal justice system and the public we serve,” the statement said. “The facts will be presented, and the ultimate outcome of the case will be determined in a court of law.”
If convicted, Liu faces up to 21 years in prison.
At Liu’s hearing Tuesday, sheriff’s officials filled a couple rows in the courtroom in a show of support.
The union that represents more than 7,800 sheriff’s deputies said in a statement that its membership was standing behind Liu “based on the information that is available to us about the scene he encountered” at the gas station.
“Our own experiences in these dangerous and high-risk scenarios affirm our belief that a deputy, or any sworn peace officer, has the right to use force to protect themselves and members of the public,” said the statement from the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs. “Based on what we know, Deputy Liu’s in-the-moment actions were justifiable.”
The union said that Garcia was on meth, was in fact driving a stolen car, and that he disobeyed orders “while speeding away,” hitting Liu with his car.
Liu has never had any previous disciplinary issues and once received a life-saving award for his actions, the union said.
Lacey said in a statement that “there is an inherent danger for law enforcement officers every time they put on the uniform.”
“We applaud their dedication and bravery to make split-second decisions in potentially life-threatening situations,” she said. “But we also must hold them accountable when their conduct is unlawful.”
Lacey and her office have been criticized for declining to charge officers involved in on-duty shootings for years, including a case in which the Los Angeles police chief made a rare move by announcing that his officer should be criminally prosecuted.
Lacey said in March that prosecutors declined to charge Officer Clifford Proctor because they couldn’t prove he acted unlawfully when he shot Brendon Glenn in the back in 2015 in Venice. The 29-year-old Glenn was on his stomach and trying to push himself up when Proctor shot him, police said.
The last officer to be charged with shooting a civilian, Los Angeles police Officer Ronald Orosco, was sentenced to five years in prison. He pleaded no contest to shooting an unarmed driver in the back in September 2000; the man survived.
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