Los Angeles Police Department releases video of officers who ignored robbery to play Pokémon Go

The LAPD Headquarters on 1st St. in downtown Los Angeles. After reviewing the video from their squad car, the supervisor concluded that the officers had heard the call, but decided to ignore it because they were playing Pokémon Go. — Los Angeles Times/TNS

LOS ANGELES: The Los Angeles Police Department on Oct 5 released video footage that captured two officers talking about catching a character in a game of Pokémon Go while ignoring a robbery call in 2017.

The exchange was caught on the digital camera inside their squad car, shedding light on an episode that had previously only been described in department records and court documents.

Officers Louis Lozano and Eric Mitchell were fired in 2018 after a disciplinary panel ruled unanimously that the pair broke department policy by failing to back up a colleague on a pending robbery call – and then lied about playing the game when confronted by supervisors and internal affairs investigators.

The officers appealed their terminations, and the case eventually landed before a California Court of Appeal, which last year affirmed a decision by a lower court that the LAPD was justified in the firings. Lozano and Mitchell had been on the job for roughly 17 years and seven years, respectively.

The officers’ attorney, Greg Yacoubian, said Friday that his clients were “treated unfairly”. His defence has long been that the department broke its own rules by using the dashcam recording of their private conversations to prove their misconduct. He also said the officers were improperly interviewed without legal or labour representation present.

“The right to privacy of the officers is really what was at issue here and there’s no dispute that the (dashboard camera) was left inadvertently activated,” Yacoubian said.

The incident occurred in the Crenshaw area on April 15, 2017, which department officials described as a busy day when most officers on duty were tied up on calls.

Recorded conversations captured Lozano as he said, “I don’t want to be his help,” in response to an LAPD captain’s request for backup in responding to a robbery in progress with multiple suspects at the Crenshaw Mall Macy’s store. The officers were parked less than 200 yards away, the department said. When their patrol supervisor tried hailing Lozano and Mitchell on their car radio to see if they could assist other officers at the mall, he got no response, department records show.

The supervisor repeatedly questioned Lozano and Mitchell about their whereabouts during 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.

After reviewing the video from their squad car, the supervisor concluded that the officers had heard the call, but decided to ignore it because they were playing Pokémon Go, a popular augmented reality game that prompts players to visit real locations in order to “capture” digital creatures.

On Thursday, the city released the roughly three-hour video from the officers’ dashcam via its online records portal.

The officers could be heard discussing the game for more than 20 minutes while they drove to different locations where fictional characters with names like Snorlax and Togetic were known to appear.

At one point, one of the officers asks, “Are you watching a video, or are you playing?”

“I’m watching a video,” his partner responds.

When they were initially confronted about whether they were playing the game, the officers denied it, claiming that it requires users to walk, not drive. Instead, the officers said, they were monitoring a tracking app used by players to catch “mythical” creatures.

An internal investigation led to the officers being charged with multiple counts of misconduct, including failing to respond to a robbery call and making misleading statements to department officials.

During the officers’ disciplinary hearings, the department presented 16 exhibits, including some evidence “defining their words as part of Pokémon Go lexicon”, LAPD records show.

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. – Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service

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