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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Video shows LAPD officer kicking and punching in controversial arrest

By Kate Mather Tribune News Service

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 L.A. Police Department officials 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 controversial plea deal that spared Garcia jail time.

The Los Angeles 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 amid the ongoing national debate over race and policing, 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 across the city. Chief Charlie Beck, who sharply condemned Garcia’s actions, has said 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 also defended his client’s actions, saying he 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” to the officers, 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 District Attorney 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 during the initial moments when Garcia strikes him. After the other officers move away, Alford barely moves his body as Garcia presses his knee into Alford’s back. At one point, the officer pushes his other knee on top of Alford near the man’s neck.

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 police lights caught her eye.

Alvarado said she watched as the officer kicked and elbowed the man on the ground.

“I didn’t think it was a proper action,” she 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. She led them to the monitor and showed them the video.

Two of the officers laughed as they watched, Alvarado said. The group then left.

Later, Alvarado said, another officer came to the business and asked her to play the recording. Alvarado obliged. At one point, she said, she glanced behind her and noticed the officer recording the video on his cellphone.

When asked who the officer was, Alvarado identified Garcia, who was sitting in court.

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, would be allowed to enter a new plea to a misdemeanor charge that would replace the felony and would be placed on two years of probation. If he violates the plea terms, the felony will stand and he will be placed on three years of probation. If he doesn’t appear in court for the 2017 hearing, he could be sentenced to jail.

Some have criticized the move as too lenient. District Attorney Jackie Lacey defended the agreement, telling The Times earlier this month that she felt the deal was appropriate given the evidence examined by prosecutors. She declined to explain 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, 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 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.

Law enforcement officers charged with felony assault often avoided jail time when they negotiated plea deals with the district attorney’s office 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 in the face and body while taking him to a downtown jail.

Garcia, who has been with the department for about a decade, is awaiting what is known as a Board of Rights hearing, his attorney said earlier this month. During such hearings, a three-person panel decides disciplinary cases for officers who usually face termination or lengthy suspensions.

The events leading up to the assault charge against Garcia began shortly after noon on Oct. 16, 2014. In an earlier interview with The Times, Alford said 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 of the driver’s seat and running directly toward Alford before delivering the blows.

Beck previously said he was shocked when he saw the video and personally contacted Lacey to seek criminal charges.

Garcia and another officer involved in the arrest 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 the civilian 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 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 Sterling granted The Times’ request for the video.

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