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by Mary Shelton
Friday, Nov. 04, 2005 at 11:06 AM
Last December, the police department presented a narrative of the shooting of a young woman inside her car.
But inside the department's management, the truth turned out to be much different.
By Mary Shelton
The interrogation of the Riverside Police Department officer who shot and killed Summer Lane last December came under fire, by members of the Community Police Review Commission during a special meeting held to draft its public report on the incident.
"The detectives appear to be giving answers to the officer to their own questions," Commissioner Brian Pearcy said.
Pearcy, a former Los Angeles Police Department officer, made his comments while he was drafting the section of the report which critiqued the investigation conducted by members of the Officer-Involved Shooting Team.
Pearcy also said that the detectives appeared to have been coaching Wilson on what to say, rather than asking him objective questions designated to elicit information which would have presented a clear picture of the events that occurred before and during the shooting. Most impacted by the investigators' line of questioning were portions of the interrogation which addressed what was going through Wilson's mind when he walked up to Lane's car and pulled the trigger four times.
"In their questions, detectives were leading the officer away from responses that would subject the officer to possible violations of law and policy," Pearcy said.
Pearcy in his comments gave higher marks to other portions of the investigation, which he said had been done more thoroughly than others had been in the past. For one thing, more eyewitnesses to the shooting had been located and interviewed by department investigators. For the most part, the department's investigation matched what had been uncovered by the CPRC's private investigator Norm Wright in his own investigation, Pearcy said. The interrogation of Wilson, was its main problem, in his opinion.
"That's where the investigation broke down, " Pearcy said.
Other commissioners including Les Davidson, Sheri Corral and Jim Ward sharply disagreed that the interrogation of Wilson was the investigation's only downside.
"I just have a problem saying this is a good investigation," Davidson, another former Los Angeles Police Department officer, said, repeatedly.
Ward said that it is not just the quality of investigation that is important but how it is interpreted by those who make the decisions. That was where the department and the CPRC parted ways.
"We came up with a whole different conclusion than they did," Ward said.
Indeed, the department has already concluded both its criminal investigation and its administrative review done by its Internal Affairs Division, but has yielded no information on its findings citing state laws pertaining to the confidentiality of peace officer personnel files. However, Wilson is still working as a patrol officer nearly 10 months after the shooting, which has allowed people to draw their own conclusions.
Wright, on the other hand, told commissioners at a Sept. 28 meeting that he did not believe that Wilson was in imminent danger when he shot Lane. None of the commissioners believe that Wilson was in danger or shooting at a fleeing felon, according to statements they gave at two meetings since they had first listened in stunned silence to Wright's presentation of his investigation's findings.
From the beginning of its investigation, the department stated in documents that Wilson shot Lane because he was in danger.
Wilson shot Lane to eliminate a threat to his life, according to a memo submitted by Det. Jay Greenstein of the Robbery-Homicide Unit to his supervisor, Sgt. Steve Johnson on Dec. 21, 2004. In that same memo, and even in an earlier one written by Johnson to Chief Russ Leach on Dec. 7, 2004, were statements that Wilson had left suspect Christopher Grotness on the ground and approached Lane as she sat in the driver's side of her stationary vehicle and shot four times into her window.
These earlier accounts contrasted with a briefing the police department gave to the CPRC on Dec. 22, 2004 that stated that Wilson had shot at Lane from some location behind the car, and that he was probably on the ground with Grotness at the time. The department has not publicly explained the discrepancies between the two accounts. In the current draft of the its report, members of the CPRC were careful not to include possible explanations as to why the information put out by the department verbally, and later in writing was contradictory. But several of them had harsh words in response.
"The department lied," Ward said at a meeting held on Oct. 12, adding that he did not feel mistakes were made.
The interrogation of Wilson in question, took place at the department's general investigation bureau on Dec. 7, 2004, the day after the shooting. Detectives Greenstein and Ron Sanfilippo, from the Robbery-Homicide unit met with Wilson and his attorney, Anthony Snograss. At the beginning of the interview, the detectives ask Wilson to relate the events that led up to the shooting and listen to his account. However, further into the interview process, they begin to ask him questions, interjected with their own opinions.
During several portions of the interview where Wilson's account differed from those of other eyewitnesses, the detectives appeared to use their experience as officers to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt, according to a transcript of the interview. At one point, Sanfilippo questions Wilson about whether or not he gave verbal commands to suspect Christopher Grotness at any point during the process of trying to arrest him.
Det. Sanfilippo: When we talked to him[Grotness] last night, he said, you know, 'the officer didn't say nothing to me the whole time. You know he didn't make any statements. He didn't make any commands. We both neither of us talked,' which is kind of unusual in a fight. I mean, I was an officer.
Sanfilippo: I know you're probably at all times giving commands. That's part of the whole thing.
Sanfilippo: So you were giving commands telling him to stop and he just wasn't complying?
The CPRC had expressed concern in several of its annual reports about investigations of citizen complaints where the assigned investigators asked leading questions and engaging in questioning that was not objective.
"All too often, the investigations read like a defense brief as opposed to an objective investigation," the 2003 annual report stated, "The Commission has found that the investigator provides his or her opinion as opposed to simply gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses. This needs to stop."
The department's Conduct and Performance Manual on administrative investigations also states that investigators are to avoid asking leading questions or refresh the witness's memory of events. Although the Officer-Involved-Shooting team concentrates mainly on the criminal investigation of a shooting, it also asks questions pertaining to administrative issues to assist the Internal Affairs Division in its own administrative review of a shooting.
Wilson's interrogation continued with Sanfilippo asking him questions about his state of mind before the shooting. Again, it appeared as if the detectives were providing possible answers to their own questions, while Wilson simply agrees.
Sanfilippo: --what were you thinking at that point. Because that's what it, you know, comes down to. What were you thinking? Why did you make those decisions?
Sanfilippo: Because you were the one involved in that fight for five minutes. You were the one that had somebody trying to run you over. And you're the one that makes that ultimate decision to do what you did.
Sanfilippo also questions Wilson further about whether or not Wilson was in fear for his life, when he shot Lane. Wilson says little, except in agreement.
Wilson: --If he[Grotness] pins me down again with his girlfriend trying to run me over, then, you know, I'm in trouble. So I figured, you know, I can't deal with this guy--he's so strong. He's aggressive--and have her running over me at the same time So--
Sanfilippo: Like a will to survive.
Sanfilippo: I mean, you basically are out there. You don't know when your backup is coming.
Sanfilippo: And all of this is coming on, and you've got to take care of each issue. And you just chose the more violent issue at the time to deal with and go back to the other one. Is that basically what you're saying?
At several points in the interview, Wilson laughs in response to the detectives' questions including a statement by one detective about how emotional he appears to be.
Greenstein: Good. I could tell that it was a pretty emotional situation because I can see like right now you're--I don't know if you're just tired or still fatigued but you're shaking(unintelligible)
Greenstein: I can tell that it's a --that you survived a huge ordeal. How are you feeling now? Are you okay?
Wilson: Yeah, I'm good now. Thanks.
Initially, Lt. Jeffrey Collapy had said that Wilson had suffered a broken ankle during the incident, which the department said had occurred when his left leg being run over by Lane's car at least once. However, according to Greenstein's later memo, Wilson had suffered a minor sprain to his left ankle.
Several commissioners expressed doubts about whether or not his leg had actually been run over by the car because there was scant evidence of visible injuries on photographs taken of Wilson's legs after the incident. Others argued that the lack of visible injuries did not mean that Wilson had not been hit by the car. A short discussion of whether or not the commission should subpoena Wilson's medical records took place, but Chair Michael Gardner said that before the commission took a vote, it would have to ask for those records and be denied first.
The CPRC planned to meet on Nov. 2 at 3pm to discuss the public report and possibly vote on whether or not it was ready to be released to the public. After its release, the CPRC will then access the department's administrative review and then discuss the case in closed session before deciding whethr or not the shooting was within policy. Until then, it remains to be seen whether the difference in opinions between the CPRC and the department which it oversees continue to part way.
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