LOS ANGELES: A California appeals court has upheld the firing of two Los Angeles police officers who were caught playing Pokémon Go instead of responding to a robbery at the Crenshaw Mall in 2017, court records show.
The California Court of Appeal in its ruling Friday affirmed an earlier decision by a lower court that the Los Angeles Police Department’s decision to fire the two officers was justified. In doing so, it rejected a claim by the officers that the department had improperly used a digital in-car video recording of their private conversations in order to prove their misconduct, and another that they were improperly subjected to questioning about their actions by a supervisor without legal or labour representation present.
The decision is the latest in a years-old case that drew outrage from police officials, led to unanimous verdicts by administrative panels that Officers Louis Lozano and Eric Mitchell should be fired, and then slowly made its way through the courts as the officers waged a legal battle to overturn their terminations.
Greg Yacoubian, an attorney for the officers, said they “obviously are disappointed” in the ruling and were “considering how to proceed.”
City Attorney Mike Feuer’s office did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
The incident occurred on a busy day in April 2017 when Lozano and Mitchell were assigned to a foot beat patrol in the Crenshaw area and there were “more calls than police cars available to respond,” according to court records.
When a call for a robbery in progress with multiple suspects at the Crenshaw Mall came in, a captain in the area responded, but Lozano and Mitchell, who were also in the area, did not — raising questions as to their whereabouts from their patrol supervisor, Sgt Jose Gomez.
Gomez radioed Lozano and Mitchell to see whether they could respond to the mall but got no response, according to court records. Later, Gomez questioned Lozano and Mitchell about the incident, and they said they had been in a park with loud music engaging with community members and hadn’t heard the radio call.
Gomez, “still uneasy” about the incident the next day, decided to review the in-car video from Lozano and Mitchell’s vehicle to see what was going on, according to court records. From that video, he determined the officers had heard the radio call, discussed it and decided not to respond.
“Aw screw it,” Lozano allegedly said, according to court records.
A subsequent internal affairs investigation revealed the officers were instead playing Pokémon Go at the time, court records said. The game uses geolocation technology to prompt players to look for Pokémon creatures within their actual physical surroundings, and then “capture” them.
The in-car video showed that five minutes after Lozano said “screw it,” Mitchell alerted Lozano that a specific Pokémon character known as a “Snorlax” was projected as being nearby in the game. The video then showed the officers “discussing Pokémon” for the next 20 minutes “as they drove to different locations where the virtual creatures apparently appeared on their mobile phones,” court records said.
The officers gave various excuses for their actions, according to the court records, including that the captain who had responded to the robbery had not requested backup. However, police officials nonetheless charged the officers with multiple counts of misconduct, according to court records — including for failing to respond to a robbery in progress, making misleading statements to supervisors and investigators, and playing Pokémon Go while on patrol in their police vehicle.
The officers pleaded guilty to not responding to the radio call but not guilty to the other counts. They denied they were playing Pokémon Go, but admitted leaving their foot beat to find the “Snorlax” — which they alternately claimed they were doing as part of a “social media event” related to the game, as part of an “extra patrol,” and to “chase this mythical creature,” according to court records.
Disciplinary boards that heard the cases against the officers in closed-door disciplinary hearings ruled unanimously against them — finding that they were “disingenuous and deceitful in their remarks” to investigators, and that their decision to play the game while on duty “violated the trust of the public” and represented “unprofessional and embarrassing behaviour,” according to court records.
The officers were fired in line with the recommendations of the boards, prompting their legal challenges.
On Friday, the appeals court found those challenges without merit.
The court found the department’s use of the in-car video justified — and that “it would be preposterous to require commanding officers and internal affairs investigators to ignore evidence of ‘criminal or egregious misconduct’ simply because it was unintentionally captured” in such recordings.
The court also rejected the officers’ claim that their rights were violated when their supervisor had questioned them about their actions without legal or labour representatives on hand, finding that those questions had been raised as part of the supervisor’s normal course of work, before the officers’ misconduct was known or the internal investigation had begun.
Yacoubian on Monday said the officers still contend that the LAPD broke its own rules by using the recording of the officers’ private conversations in their patrol car against them, and that they should not have been fired based on such private communications.
“The department did not adhere to its own rules,” Yacoubian said. “Do the ends justify the means?” – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service