An appeals court in California has upheld the firing of two former Los Angeles Police Department officers for playing Pokémon Go rather than responding to a nearby robbery.
Louis Lozano and Eric Mitchell, who were fired after the 2017 incident, had argued that the city violated the law by using their police car's digital in-car video system recording as evidence and by denying them protections of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act. A California appellate court denied their petition for reinstatement in a 32-page decision filed on Friday.
"A board of rights found petitioners guilty on multiple counts of misconduct, based in part on a digital in-car video system (DICVS) 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 document reads, before outlining the events of April 15, 2017, and the investigation that followed.
According to the court filing, Lozano and Mitchell ignored a call requesting backup to respond to a robbery at a nearby Macy's, then set off in pursuit of a "Snorlax" and spent the next 20 minutes driving around to various locations where virtual creatures were shown on their maps.
They were accused of later making false statements about their lack of response to the call and their involvement with Pokémon Go. For example, they said that they were only talking about the augmented reality game (which became a worldwide craze for about a year) rather than actually playing it.
The officers were charged with multiple counts of on-duty misconduct: failing to respond to a robbery-in-progress call, making misleading statements to their commander when asked why they did not hear the radio, failing to respond over the radio when their unit was called during the robbery, failing to handle an assigned radio call, playing Pokémon Go while on patrol in their vehicle and making false statements to a detective during a complaint investigation. They pleaded guilty to the first and third counts and not guilty to the rest.
The officers' lawyer, Greg Yacoubian, told NPR over email that his clients are "understandably disappointed with the opinion" and that his team is "evaluating how best to proceed."
"This case matters because [it] is important to hold the Department accountable regarding its compliance with its own rules and policies," he wrote. "Additionally, it's important that the Department be held accountable to adhere to the law with regard to how it conducts its internal investigations. The ends do not justify the means."
What police say happened on that Saturday
According to the court filing, Saturday, April 15, 2017, was a busy day in the Southwest Division — there were more calls coming in than there were police cars, and there had already been a homicide earlier in the day.
Lozano and Mitchell were working as partners assigned to a foot beat patrol, which involved dealing with "quality of life" issues in the area of the Crenshaw Corridor and Leimert Park.
While the patrol commanding officer — or captain — was heading to the scene of the homicide, he heard a radio call asking for help responding to a robbery in progress involving multiple suspects at the Macy's in the Crenshaw Mall. He could see the Macy's from where he was stopped on the road and also saw a police car tucked in an alley a few feet away from the mall.
That police car didn't respond to the call, so the captain figured it was from a different division with a different radio frequency and decided to answer the call himself with a "Code 6." As he approached the location of the robbery, he saw the other police car leave the area.
Sgt. Jose Gomez, the two officers' patrol supervisor that day, said the next five to seven minutes were "chaotic," with updates as the captain responded to the robbery.
He saw on the watch commander's board that Lozano and Mitchell's unit was also "Code 6" and located in the Crenshaw Corridor, so he tried to radio them to request help but received no reply. Then he contacted communications again for their response.
According to the court filing: "Communications replied, 'No,' and that was it."
The officers' supervisor was suspicious
Gomez later thought it was "peculiar" that Lozano and Mitchell had initiated their Code 6 response on the Crenshaw Corridor at nearly the same time that the captain responded to the robbery in progress.
He arranged to meet with the officers later that night in a 7-Eleven parking lot where they were conducting a separate illegal-merchandise investigation. He asked them if they had heard the call for backup during the robbery — Mitchell said he had not, while Lozano said he heard the other officer was responding but did not hear the request for backup.
According to the court filing, Gomez asked them if their radios were working and reminded them of how important the communications system was to their livelihoods and safety.
The officers said it was loud in the park and there was "a lot of music," and Gomez advised them to move to a quieter location next time.
Reportedly still uneasy the next day, Gomez decided to review their patrol unit's DICVS recording to "find out what they do on their average day."
It was through that recording that he learned that Lozano and Mitchell's patrol unit was in fact the one spotted in the alleyway near the mall and that they had not only heard the radio call about the robbery but discussed whether to reply to it and ultimately went Code 6 on the Crenshaw Corridor to "conceal that they had decided not to respond to the call."
In-car recordings reveal their alleged Pokémon Go pursuit
According to the DICVS recording, Lozano instructed Mitchell to put them Code 6 at the corridor, laughing and saying of the captain that "I don't want to be his help."
That's when they drove backward through the alley and away from the mall.
The recording captured a few more minutes of radio traffic regarding the robbery and pursuit of multiple suspects.
"After communications made a second attempt to contact petitioners, Officer Lozano asked if they should 'ask [communications] if there's a message,' " the court filing reads. "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.' "
Gomez forwarded his concerns up the chain of command, which led to an internal misconduct investigation.
And after listening to the DICVS recording several times, the detective leading that investigation pieced together that the officers were playing Pokémon Go while on duty that day.
For example, five minutes after Lozano said "screw it," Mitchell reportedly alerted him 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,' " according to the filing. "Mitchell suggested a different route, then told Lozano, 'We got four minutes.' "
They allegedly spent the next 20 minutes discussing the game and driving to different locations, capturing the Snorlax and then going after a Togetic.
The recording captured them working to catch the creature on their phones, then saying, "The guys are going to be so jealous." As they headed back to end their watch, Mitchell said, "I got you a new Pokémon today, dude."
At a later board of rights hearing, the officers said they had not responded to the calls because they needed to stay within their assigned patrol area. They also claimed they were monitoring a Pokémon tracker app on their phones but not actually playing the 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,' " the document says.
The board of rights unanimously found the two guilty on all counts except that of failing to handle an assigned radio call, and it recommended they be removed from the department — a recommendation the police chief followed.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.