Outrage escalated in Ferguson, Missouri, as city officials waited a full week to release the name of the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. But it took even longer for Los Angeles to release the names of two officers involved in the shooting of another black man believed to be unarmed.
On Thursday — more than two weeks after Ezell Ford was fatally shot — police announced that the names of the officers were Sharlton Wampler and Antonio Villegas, both in the gang enforcement unit. As in Michael Brown’s case, police allege that Ford was reaching for their gun — not that he had his own. But witnesses say the 25-year-old man who strugged with mental illness was laying on the ground when he was shot, and that they saw no struggle. Witness Leroy Hill told the Huffington Post that he stood across the street as officers beat Ford, at one point yelling “shoot him.”
“So as he was walking down the street, the police approached him, whatever was said I couldn’t hear it, but the cops jumped out of the car and rushed him over here into this corner,” Hill said. “They had him in the corner and were beating him, busted him up, for what reason I don’t know he didn’t do nothing. The next thing I know I hear a ‘pow!’ while he’s on the ground. They got the knee on him. And then I hear another ‘pow!’ No hesitation. And then I hear another ‘pow!’ Three times.”
Initially, a press release from the Los Angeles Police Department stated only that a “struggle ensued” and that, “It is unknown if the suspect had any gang affiliations,” implicitly raising the possibility of gang activity. But people in Ford’s neighborhood told the Huffington Post Ford wasn’t remotely involved in gang activity. In a later statement, police indicated that Ford grabbed one of the officers during the stop, after which they fell to the ground. “During the struggle, they fell to the ground and the individual attempted to remove the officer’s handgun from its holster. The partner officer then fired his handgun and the officer on the ground fired his backup weapon at the individual,” the statement says. After the shots were fired, police called for an ambulance and Ford died at the hospital, the release stated.
Police still haven’t released autopsy results. And they say they don’t plan to. “Police have also placed a security hold on Ford’s autopsy to prevent coroner’s officials from publicly releasing information about Ford’s wounds,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
In explaining their reasons for delaying the release of the names of the two officers involved in the shooting, a police spokesman cited a rap video made by a South LA rapper that referred to Ford as “cousin.” The rap is entitled “Fuck Tha Police,” and memorializes Ford and other young African Americans who have died at police hands. The rappers wear t-shirts that read “save black boys,” and among the lyrics are “To tell the truth, shit, we all really need to unite. Cause if not, shit, we all gonna die.” The Los Angeles Police Protective League sent an email to its members warning that the video — which it alleged was created by “a Los Angeles street gang” — raises “safety concerns for all officers” because they simulate a pistol with their hands and say “Fuck tha Police.”
But rapper Ceebo Tha Rapper told the Huffington Post, “I didn’t intend to threaten them in a physical or violent way,” and that the hand gestures demonstrate the frustration felt when police point real guns at members of his community. He said no one in the video is a member of a gang, although he does intend to “attack them through courts and going through the right procedures.”
“In the video, yeah, we’re using our hands to make gestures like we’re holding a gun, but what about when the police jump out on us and put actual guns in our face?” he said.
Ford’s mother said Ford exhibited signs of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, both of which run in the family. His mother described him as a kind and “free spirited” guy who distanced himself from others in his teen years due to his mental illness.
Hundreds have protested and held community forums in Los Angeles in the wake of Ford’s death, calling for the release of the names of the officers and other information about why Ford was shot. The city is no stranger to police shootings — particularly in South Los Angeles.
There have been at least 303 people killed in the Los Angeles area in officer-involved shootings since 2007, according to a Los Angeles Times database. And a week before Ford’s death, another unarmed man, Omar Abrego, was allegedly beaten to death by police in the same South Los Angeles neighborhood after he was pulled over on his way home from work.
“I’m sick and tired of the police killing our people off,” one protester, Nicole Tinson, told the Los Angeles Times.