The city of Los Angeles agreed to pay $985,000 to settle federal excessive force claims against a Los Angeles police officer for firing into a group of Black teenagers after he mistook a replica gun for a real weapon, it was announced Thursday.
On Feb. 10, 2015, Jamar Nicholson, Jason Huerta and their schoolmates were rapping in an alley a few blocks from their Los Angeles high school. Nicholson's friend posed with a realistic Airsoft toy gun replica with an orange-colored tip at the end of the barrel while he was rapping and dancing in the circle, according to court filings.
As the teens turned off the music and started the trek to class, they heard multiple gunshots, which one teen mistook as gunfire from nearby gangs. The shots were actually fired by LAPD Officer Michael Gutierrez, who had seen the group and, after seeing the prop gun, fired at least three times into the crowd of teens. One bullet hit Nicholson in the upper back.
A message to the City Attorney's Office seeking comment was not immediately answered. The case had been scheduled to go to trial in August.
Despite having been shot for no reason, Nicholson, then 15 years old, remained handcuffed when transported by ambulance to the hospital and while in the emergency room, attorneys said. Both Nicholson and Huerta remained in cuffs and in custody for five hours even though the police immediately learned at the scene that they had shot into a group of youths on their way to school.
"The officer falsely claimed a crime was being committed by Blacks and a Latino as they filmed themselves rapping with a bright orange-tipped replica gun as a prop," said the boys' attorney, John Harris. "This shooting wouldn't have occurred if the kids were white, or on the way to school in a Westside neighborhood. This was a classic example of the mistreatment, racial prejudice and injustice against Blacks, including Black children."
Harris said that after waging a "long and rigorous five-year battle against the city for Guiterrez's blatant and egregious misconduct, we finally convinced them to do the right thing and compensate our clients for their physical injuries and emotional distress suffered."
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Attorneys for Nicholson and Huerta filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the LAPD and the city in September 2015, contending Gutierrez violated their Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful arrest and excessive force by shooting at them and holding them in handcuffs for five hours. The pair also maintained the shooting violated their 14th Amendment due process rights.
After the city and then-LAPD Chief Charlie Beck were dismissed from the suit, a Los Angeles federal judge denied Gutierrez's qualified immunity claims, which protect a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff's rights.
The officer appealed, but the appellate panel affirmed the lower court's ruling last year, sending the case back for possible trial. When an Aug. 20 trial date was set, the city settled, Harris said.
"Four teens rapping in an alley with a prop gun and here comes a cop in plain clothes, who, without identifying himself, shoots three times," Harris said. "Jason (Huerta) thought they were gang members, but gang members identify themselves before shooting."
The attorney alleged that the case reveals something about racial bias in the LAPD.
"They think all Black or Latino kids who are congregating are gang members," Harris said.
As for Nicholson, who is now 19 years old, he has not fully recovered and recently had bullet fragments removed from his back, Harris said.
"He may suffer from this for the rest of his life," the attorney said.