Crime & Justice

Man paralyzed in LAPD shooting gets $5.7 million one decade later

LAPD-related payouts cost the city $325 million from fiscal year 2004 to 2015.
LAPD-related payouts cost the city $325 million from fiscal year 2004 to 2015.

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More than 10 years after LAPD officers shot him in the back leaving him paralyzed, Robert Contreras will receive compensation from the City of L.A.

The Los Angeles City Council Wednesday gave final approval to a jury-awarded payout of $5.7 million to Contreras. Including interest and attorneys fees, the total will amount to $6.9 million, the city attorney's office said. 

“We are so happy because this is going to make a huge difference in his life and in his family’s life,” said Dale Galipo, the lead attorney in Contreras’ case.

Payouts of this size are rare — just one LAPD shooting has led to larger settlement in recent years, according to data obtained by KPCC from the L.A. City Attorney. That was a $15 million payout to a 13 year-old who was shot by police in Glassell Park in 2010.

Overall, from fiscal years 2004 through 2015, LAPD-related settlements covering everything from  wrongful death to traffic accidents have cost the city more than $320 million—more than $40 million of that from claims involving dozens of LAPD shootings, 22 of them fatal. 

Closure for Contreras comes after years of legal wrangling over whether officers were in the right when they shot Contreras in the back in September 2005 as he fled the scene of a drive-by shooting.

Contreras was 19 at the time and a gang member. He was in a van in South L.A. with two other men when witnesses told police that gunfire had come from the van into the street. After a short pursuit, the three men got out of the vehicle and police chased them on foot. Police followed Contreras down a dark driveway and shot him four times.

Officers believed he had a gun, but Contreras was in fact, unarmed.

The bullet wounds left Contreras paralyzed from the waist down with just partial use of his arms.

In 2009, Contreras was convicted on attempted murder charges for his involvement in the drive-by shooting. He served time in prison, but after being released on parole, he filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the city and the two officers involved, saying the officers had used excessive force when they fired at him.

In 2012, the Los Angeles City Council had the chance to settle the case out of court for $4.5 million, but opted instead to take the case before a jury.

At the time, City Councilman Paul Krekorian told KPCC, “It’s really a question of trying to do what’s right in pursuing justice and to stand up for the officers who put their lives at risk.”

The city argued in court that the officers’ use of force was reasonable because Contreras was involved in a violent felony moments before he was shot, and was attempting to flee the scene. The city said the officers believed their lives were at risk because they believed Contreras was armed.

Contreras’ lawyers pointed out that he was shot in the back, so he could not have been facing the officers aggressively, as they claimed. Contreras’ lawyers also said the officers never warned Contreras that they were going to shoot. 

The L.A. District Attorney declined to file criminal charges against the officers.

A jury awarded Contreras $5.7 million and the city appealed the decision, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in December 2015. 

The Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, so the award decided in lower courts held.

“In terms of jury award, there are no further levels of appeal of the underlying case, so there’s nowhere left for [the city of Los Angeles] to go,” said Bill Schmidt, one of the attorneys representing Contreras.

Schmidt said Contreras needs 24-hour care and has been getting by with help from his family and public assistance.

“It’s been a struggle for the family. [Contreras] hasn’t seen one cent from the award,” Schmidt said.

The city attorney’s office declined to comment for this story. Galipo said he expects Contreras to receive his money within 90 days.