“Aw, screw it”: LAPD cops hunted Pokémon instead of responding to robbery
A California appeals court has upheld the firings of two Los Angeles Police Department officers who failed to respond to a robbery in progress and instead went searching for a Snorlax in the Pokémon Go augmented reality game.
Officers Louis Lozano and Eric Mitchell were being recorded by a digital in-car video system (DICVS) when they decided to catch a Pokémon after not responding to a robbery on Saturday, April 15, 2017, according to the California Court of Appeal ruling issued Friday. A board of rights found the officers “guilty on multiple counts of misconduct” based on part on the “recording that captured petitioners willfully abdicating their duty to assist a commanding officer’s response to a robbery in progress and playing a Pokémon mobile phone game while on duty,” the ruling said.
The former officers appealed, claiming the city “proceeded in a manner contrary to the law by using the DICVS recording in their disciplinary proceeding and by denying them the protections of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act,” Friday’s ruling said. A trial court denied the petition challenging the firings, and a three-judge panel at the appeals court unanimously upheld that decision on Friday.
“Aw, screw it”
Lozano and Mitchell were on a nearby patrol when there was a radio call to respond to a robbery in progress with several suspects at a Macy’s in the Crenshaw Mall. They later told their supervisor, Sgt. Jose Gomez, that they did not hear the call asking for backup at the mall, but the DICVS recording showed that they ignored attempts to reach them, the ruling said:
After communications made a second attempt to contact petitioners, Officer Lozano asked if they should “ask [communications] if there’s a message.” Officer Mitchell replied, “It’s up to you. Whatever you think. I don’t want them to think we’re not paying attention to the radio.” Lozano responded, “Aw, screw it.” Petitioners made no attempt to respond over the radio when their unit was called.
Instead of going toward the scene of the robbery, the officers “moved backwards through the alley and turned away from the mall,” the ruling said.
Snorlax at 46th and Leimert
The hunt for a Snorlax allegedly began at 6:09 pm, five minutes after Lozano said, “screw it.”
The ruling explained:
Officer Mitchell alerted Lozano that “Snorlax” “just popped up” at “46th and Leimert.” After noting that “Leimert doesn’t go all the way to 46th,” Lozano responded, “Oh, you [know] what I can do? I’ll [go] down 11th and swing up on Crenshaw. I know that way I can get to it.” Mitchell suggested a different route, then told Lozano, “We got four minutes.”
For approximately the next 20 minutes, the DICVS captured petitioners discussing Pokémon as they drove to different locations where the virtual creatures apparently appeared on their mobile phones. On their way to the Snorlax location, Officer Mitchell alerted Officer Lozano that “a Togetic just popped up,” noting it was “[o]n Crenshaw, just south of 50th.” After Mitchell apparently caught the Snorlax— exclaiming, “Got ’em”—petitioners agreed to “[g]o get the Togetic” and drove off. When their car stopped again, the DICVS recorded Mitchell saying, “Don’t run away. Don’t run away,” while Lozano described how he “buried it and ultra-balled” the Togetic before announcing, “Got him.” Mitchell advised he was “[s]till trying to catch it,” adding, “Holy crap, man. This thing is fighting the crap out of me.” Eventually Mitchell exclaimed, “Holy crap. Finally,” apparently in reference to capturing the Togetic, and he remarked, “The guys are going to be so jealous.” Petitioners then agreed to return to the 7-Eleven (where Sergeant Gomez later met them) to end their watch. On the way, Mitchell remarked, “I got you a new Pokémon today, dude.”
Officers denied playing Pokémon Go
Lozano and Mitchell denied playing a video game when they were interviewed by Detective Tracy McClanahan, who investigated the incident. “They claimed they were merely ‘having a conversation about Pokémon Go’ and Officer Mitchell had been receiving text messages and alerts from a Pokémon Go players group where ‘people [were] bragging about their scores.’ Detective McClanahan determined petitioners were not being truthful,” the ruling said.
Lozano and Mitchell were charged with “(1) Failing to respond to a robbery-in-progress call; (2) Making misleading statements to Sergeant Gomez when asked why they did not hear the radio; (3) Failing to respond over the radio when their unit was called; (4) Failing to handle an assigned radio call; (5) Playing Pokémon Go while on patrol in their police vehicle; and (6) Making false statements to Detective McClanahan during a complaint investigation,” the ruling said. The board of rights unanimously found them guilty on all counts except the one for failing to handle an assigned radio call, and found that the officers “were disingenuous and deceitful in their remarks throughout the board [hearing],” and that “their inattention to duty while playing a mobile phone game ‘violated the trust of the public, and represent[ed] unprofessional and embarrassing behavior.'”
During their testimony, the former officers continued to insist that they weren’t actually playing Pokémon Go while on duty, the ruling said:
They claimed they were monitoring a “Pokémon tracker” application on their phone, but not playing the game itself. As for “catching” Pokémon, Officer Lozano insisted this referred to “capturing [an] image” of the Pokémon on the tracking application to share with friends, while Officer Mitchell said his statements about “fighting” the Togetic referred to “relaying that information to the groups on my app,” adding that, “in order to take the picture, occasionally, the creature will fight.” Lozano said they were not engaged in a game; rather, it was a “social media event.” Mitchell said he did not consider the application a game because it was not “advertised as a game.” Petitioners admitted leaving their foot beat area in search of Snorlax, but they insisted they did so “both” as part of an “extra patrol” and to “chase this mythical creature.”
Evidence from recording allowed
The former officers argued that the DICVS recording could not be used against them because of an order that said the system “is being deployed in order to provide Department employees with a tool for crime documentation and prosecution, and not to monitor private conversations between Department employees.” However, “the Board of Police Commissioners did not give instructions on the use of unintentionally recorded conversations in disciplinary proceedings,” the ruling said.
A separate notice that provided guidelines to commanding officers said that while private conversations normally would not be “used to initiate a personnel complaint investigation or used against an employee in the adjudication of a personnel complaint,” there was a caveat: “unless there is evidence of criminal or egregious misconduct.” The board that heard the officers’ case “determined the DICVS recording could be used as evidence in the disciplinary proceeding because the misconduct captured ‘would certainly be classified as egregious,'” Friday’s ruling said.
Appeals court judges concluded that the notice “ensures that Department personnel will not be subject to discipline for minor infractions or purely private communications” but also that “commanding officers will not be forced to ignore egregious misconduct that is unintentionally captured on a DICVS recording.”