Police in six Southern California counties have shot more than 2,000 suspects since 2004. Only one officer was prosecuted — he was acquitted.

Warning: This video contains graphic imagery. Bystander video of the shooting of Elio Carrion. (KTLA)

Lead image: A bystander video shows the muzzle flash, right, from the first shot fired by a sheriff's deputy at Elio Carrion.

A grainy video showed 21-year-old Iraq war veteran Elio Carrion on the ground, pleading with a San Bernardino County deputy who held him at gunpoint.

Carrion was a passenger in a car that Deputy Ivory Webb pulled over after a high-speed pursuit in Chino. Carrion, who was unarmed, is heard telling Webb “we mean you no harm” seconds before the deputy shot him three times without visible provocation.

The bystander video of the 2006 shooting drew national attention and prompted a rare prosecution: Webb is the only on-duty officer charged with a crime in more than 2,000 Southern California police shootings since 2004, a Times examination of District Attorney’s files, coroner’s reports and court records show.

Webb’s attorney said the deputy feared Carrion might have been reaching for a weapon as he rose to his feet. A jury acquitted Webb. San Bernardino Dist. Atty. Michael Ramos, who maintains he was right to file the charges, said the verdict taught him a lasting lesson about public sentiment.

“They may be marching in the streets about police shootings,” Ramos said, but when people serve as jurors, “they still have a high regard for peace officers and the difficult job they do.”

Top: San Bernardino County Sheriff's Deputy Ivory J. Webb. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times). Bottom: Elio Carrion in 2003. (Gerardo Carrion)

Last year, as protests against excessive force by police spread across the country, there was an increase nationally in the number of murder and manslaughter charges filed against officers for on-duty shootings.

But such prosecutions remain almost unheard of in six Southern California counties — Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial — where there has been a police shooting roughly every other day since 2004, records show.

Most of those shootings were justifiable under the law, involving armed suspects who opened fire on police, suspects who refused to drop weapons during confrontations and people — often mentally ill or on drugs — who attacked officers.

Current and former Southern California prosecutors said in interviews that they declined to file charges even when videos, witness statements or forensic evidence raised serious questions about the officers’ version of events because they would have to convince a jury that the officers did not legitimately fear for their lives when they pulled the trigger.

Further, state courts have ruled that the criminal justice system should be “highly deferential” to the judgments made by officers in the field because they are sometimes forced to make split-second life or death decisions. Officers can’t be held criminally responsible even if they misjudge a threat — confusing a cellphone for a gun is common, for example — so long as they acted on reasonable and honest convictions, courts have ruled.

“Like it or not, the law provides huge cover for the police in these situations,” said Steve Cooley, L.A. County district attorney from 2000 to 2012. He said almost every shooting he reviewed was justified, but acknowledged he had a term for cases that were highly questionable but lacked the evidence to charge the officer: “awful but lawful.”

Another former Los Angeles district attorney, Gil Garcetti, said the near certainty that local prosecutors won’t file charges against police means it’s time to take the decision out of their hands and give it to the state attorney general.

Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris opposed a bill last year that would have done just that, but similar ideas are gaining traction nationally. In 2014, Wisconsin became the first state to require that police shooting investigations be done by outside agencies. Last year, New York began requiring the state attorney general to investigate cases in which police kill unarmed civilians and Connecticut took all police shooting investigations out of the hands of local prosecutors.

Garcetti said many people, especially in minority communities, believe district attorneys don’t file charges because of their close relationship with police, who they rely on as investigators and witnesses in other cases. “Even if local prosecutors can handle the cases objectively, the public will not trust their decisions because of the obvious conflict,” Garcetti said.

In Los Angeles County, police departments conduct their own shooting investigations with a lawyer and an investigator from the district attorney’s office looking over their shoulder, to make sure evidence and witnesses aren’t manipulated.

If prosecutors were to conclude a shooting was unjustified, the most likely charges would include assault or manslaughter, which would require the D.A.’s office to prove that an officer acted with reckless disregard for human life.

Garcetti (father of Mayor Eric Garcetti) was the county’s top prosecutor during the Rampart Division scandal, in which two LAPD officers admitted covering up an unjustified shooting and accused others of doing the same.

More from the Times: When police officers kill someone, can inquests get answers for the public?

He said police sometimes kept civilian witnesses to shootings away from his investigators. In addition, when several officers were involved in a shooting, the department sometimes would allow them to coordinate their stories before they were interviewed by the D.A.’s office, Garcetti said.

“There were times when we knew we were not getting the full story,” he said.

Jackie Lacey, a career prosector who succeeded Cooley in 2012, said she didn’t know of any cases in which police departments interfered with the work of her investigators.

“I believe we do an extraordinary job at independently collecting and evaluating the evidence and applying the law,” she wrote in an email to The Times.

In December, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck asked Lacey to charge one of his officers for fatally shooting Brendon Glenn, an unarmed homeless man, in the back during a May 5 encounter in Venice.

If Lacey files charges, Officer Clifford Proctor will be the first to be prosecuted for an on-duty shooting in L.A. County since 2000, a period in which there have been more than 1,300 police shootings, records show. Lacey declined to comment on the case. The shooting of Glenn was captured on a surveillance video, which has not been publicly released. Video evidence that appeared to contradict the officers’ claims that they fired because they feared for their lives was key in prosecutors’ decisions to file charges in recent high-profile cases in South Carolina, Ohio, Louisiana and Illinois.

LAPD Officer Clifford Proctor, on crutches, was involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed homeless man in Venice. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Although prosecutions remain extremely rare, officers can face departmental discipline, ranging from reprimand to dismissal, if a shooting is found to have violated policy. Internal disciplinary proceedings are confidential under California law, however, so such actions are difficult to track and do little to assure the public that officers face consequences when they use excessive force.

A handful of Southern California officers have been criminally charged for beating suspects in recent years. In 2015, a female LAPD officer was convicted of assault and sentenced to three years in prison after a dashboard video camera caught her choking and kicking a handcuffed suspect who later died. A year earlier, an Orange County jury found two former Fullerton police officers not guilty in the 2011 videotaped beating death of a schizophrenic man, who could be heard saying he couldn’t breath and crying out to his father for help during the struggle.

Controversial shootings that don’t result in prosecution often end up in civil court where the burden of proof is significantly lower and jurors are often sympathetic to families of people killed by police. Judgments and settlements resulting from such cases have cost Southern California taxpayers at least $150 million since 2004.

After jurors found the San Bernardino deputy not guilty of attempted manslaughter and assault, shooting victim Elio Carrion sued the county for violating his civil rights. He settled for $1.5 million in 2009.

The same year, Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies fired 61 rounds into the back of Alfredo Montalvo’s car following a brief pursuit. Prosecutors declined to press charges because they said the driver had used his car as a weapon, repeatedly ramming it into one of 11 police vehicles that had him surrounded in Lynwood.

Alfredo Montalvo's car and a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department vehicle were photographed after deputies fired 61 rounds following a brief pursuit. (Los Angeles Sheriff's Dept.)

The same year, Los Angeles Sheriff’s deputies fired 61 rounds into the back of Alfredo Montalvo’s car following a brief pursuit. Prosecutors declined to press charges because they said the driver had used his car as a weapon, repeatedly ramming it into one of 11 police vehicles that had him surrounded in Lynwood.

The deputies said they feared for their lives because the force of the collisions knocked two of them over and pushed the patrol car backward onto a third deputy’s foot. But several witnesses questioned during a civil trial by the family’s attorney, John C. Taylor, including deputies who were at the scene but didn’t shoot, said they didn’t see anyone fall down or get run over. The three deputies the district attorney said had been injured had no broken bones, dislocated joints or swelling, according to medical records introduced at the trial.

After reviewing the evidence — including photos of both cars that showed about a dozen bullet holes in Montalvo’s rear window, but almost no collision damage — the civil jury found the officers had used excessive force in killing the unarmed, 29-year-old father of two. The county paid Montalvo’s family nearly $9 million.

Montalvo’s widow, Annette Montalvo, said the money is bittersweet because she thought the officers should have been prosecuted. “I think the officers should pay a price,” she said. “They’re the ones who keep doing this.”

Cooley and Lacey declined to comment on the case. A spokesman for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department also declined to comment.

In 2013, Brian Beaird slammed his Corvette into a downtown Los Angeles light post following a chaotic, televised car chase. About two dozen officers hopped out of their cars behind him, most held their fire, but three LAPD officers shot Beaird in the back, killing him on live TV.

The officers said Beaird had been reaching under his seat during the pursuit, perhaps for a gun, and he reached for his waistband as he stumbled out of his mangled car and tried to flee on foot. Prosecutors reviewed the video and found no evidence that Beaird had a weapon or posed a threat when he was shot. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck rejected the officers’ claim that their lives had been in danger and said the shooting was “not justified.”

Warning: This video contains graphic imagery. KTLA footage of the Brian Beaird pursuit. (KTLA)

Months later, Lacey issued a letter declining to press charges because she didn’t think she could prove that the officers “were not actually and reasonably in fear” for their safety. In a recent interview, Lacey said she stands by the decision because, during the pursuit, which ended in a spectacular crash with another vehicle, Beaird had endangered many people’s lives and refused to pull over.

The city council, worried a civil jury would find the officers had used excessive force, approved paying Beaird’s father $5 million to settle his lawsuit, the most the city had paid in a police shooting in more than a decade.

Beck fired two of the three officers in September 2015. They are now suing the city to get their jobs back. Their attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Although police have broad latitude to fire their weapons in self-defense, a 1985 Supreme Court case involving an unarmed burglar who was shot in the back while climbing a six-foot chain link fence established one of the few bright lines officers must not cross — they can’t use deadly force against a fleeing suspect who poses no obvious threat.

Attorneys for the family of Alejandro Rendon argued that’s exactly what happened when an Indio police officer fatally shot the 23-yeard-old in the back in February 2013.

Officer Alex Franco began pursuing Rendon after spotting him riding his bicycle without a headlight. Rendon tried to pedals away, fell off the bike, then rose from the pavement as if he were holding a gun and assumed the classic shooter’s stance, Franco told investigators after the shooting. The two were almost face to face when Franco fired, he said.

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But Rendon had no gun, and he didn’t fall on the pavement where Franco said the two had faced off, according to the Riverside County district attorney’s case file. He came to rest several yards away, on the other side of a six-foot high chain link fence. A bloody cellphone and a small kitchen knife were found next to his body. He’d been shot once in the lower abdomen, from the side, and once in the back from below — suggesting he’d been climbing over the fence when Franco fired.

Ronald R. Scott, a former commander of the Massachusetts State Police ballistics team, who testified for the family during the civil trial, said the forensic evidence contradicted the explanation that Rendon was facing Franco when he fired. The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department “simply accepted the officers’ version of events, and never did an investigation to see if the evidence supported it,” Scott said.

Officer Franco, the Indio Police Department and the Riverside County district attorney’s office declined to comment on the case.

Read the full interview with Officer Alex Franco

A Times review of the 400-page case file showed no evidence that investigators from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department asked Franco to explain how a fatal bullet entered Rendon’s back, even though Franco seemed to acknowledge the possibility that Rendon had been fleeing when he pulled the trigger. Asked by investigators if he had given Rendon any commands, Franco said he only had time to yell once during the brief encounter. “I don’t know if it was after I shot or before ...” Franco said, “I was yelling, ‘Get down. Get down from the fence.’”

The investigator did not ask Franco to clarify where Rendon had been when he fired, the transcript shows.

In January 2014, the Riverside County district attorney’s office issued a two-sentence statement saying there was, “no evidence of criminal liability on the officer’s part,” and the case was closed.

Months later, a civil jury found Franco had committed battery and used excessive force, awarding Rendon’s family nearly $2 million.

Times staff writer Doug Smith and Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

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12:00 p.m.: This story was updated to include additional details on the shooting of Rendon. This article was originally published at 3:00 a.m.

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