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Lawsuit questions tactics in LA sheriff's shooting

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Deondre Brunston said he was ready to die during a tense standoff with sheriff's deputies 2 1/2 years ago.

The incident captured on videotape by sheriff's investigators shows Brunston crouched on a porch with one hand hidden behind a pillar.

The cornered 23-year-old repeatedly told deputies he held a gun and would begin shooting if they released their dog or fired first. He promised, however, he would surrender if he could talk to his girlfriend.

"I'd rather die right here," Brunston tells deputies on the videotape. "So if y'all can't grant me one wish, then we might as well get cracking."

As emotions intensified, a dog was released, and Brunston threw a sandal he had been holding in his hidden hand to the ground. Deputies began shooting, killing Brunston and the dog. No gun was found on or near Brunston.

On Tuesday, a Superior Court judge will decide whether a lawsuit claiming sheriff's supervisors were negligent in training and oversight should be heard by a jury. Attorneys for the Sheriff's Department have filed a motion seeking a dismissal.

In the suit, Brunston's relatives allege the Sheriff's Department failed to take the proper steps that could have prevented the shooting.

"They could have easily resolved this situation," said Luis Carrillo, an attorney who represents the plaintiff's family. "There was no need to kill someone. It's a high-stakes game when you have happy-trigger deputies."

Attorneys representing Los Angeles County said Brunston escalated events by saying he held a gun and would shoot if provoked. Deputies said they shot when he stood up and pointed what appeared to them to be a weapon.

"The threats had increased, and the deputies made every attempt to find the girlfriend," attorney Dennis Gonzales said. Brunston "knew all the different options deputies had ... and he said if they used any of them he would begin firing."

The judge overseeing the case in May dismissed the complaint against the deputies involved in the shooting, saying they were within their lawful rights to shoot Brunston. The lawsuit now targets the deputies' supervisors.

In question is whether the deputies were justified in the Aug. 24, 2003, shooting. Deputies were responding to a domestic violence call in Compton and were looking for Brunston when they found him on the porch of a home nearby.

On the videotape, Brunston often threatened deputies and said he didn't care if he died. But he also said he would surrender if he was put in touch with his girlfriend.

"I'll throw the gun down and I'll give up," Brunston says on the tape. "All I want to do before y'all take me to jail, is talk to the lady that's carrying my baby in her stomach."

At times, both Brunston and deputies sound increasingly impatient with one another, the videotape shows. Sheriff's investigators plead with Brunston to give up. Several times they ask Brunston where the gun is but he doesn't answer them directly.

Carrillo believes poor communication and a faulty chain of command led to Brunston's demise.

He claims that an off-duty lieutenant who had been drinking and was reached by cell phone gave an order over the phone to release the police dog to bite Brunston.

Gonzales countered that the lieutenant left the decision to release the canine with those on-scene.

Carrillo wondered why any action was needed when a crisis negotiations team was on its way.

"Why was there a need to take action?" Carrillo asked. "Why the rush, especially if a crisis team is on its way? He was bluffing and a skilled negotiator would have known that."

A report by the sheriff's Office of Independent Review said there was a lack of communication between the dog handler's supervisor and the deputies before the canine was released.

The report also blamed some of the deputies who fired their guns because they were not deemed "designated shooters" by the on-scene sergeant. Several deputies were given two-to-five day suspensions.

The review is ongoing.

Brunston's relatives believe deputies could have prevented the shooting.

"I would like them to admit they made really bad choices," said Eboni Bentley, the mother of Brunston's twin 7-year-old sons. "They did have other alternatives and they should have tried them all before they shot. No one should get shot over making statements."

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