Sunday, June 16, 2024

Review panel: 2 LAPD officers violated policy in shooting suicidal man armed with knife

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Two Los Angeles police officers broke department policy by fatally shooting a possibly suicidal man who was armed with a knife, according to the Police Commission, which agreed with Chief Michel Moore’s assessment that the man didn’t pose an immediate threat to either officer.

A review of the shooting in December of 22-year-old Margarito Lopez Jr. in the Historic South-Central neighborhood found that Lopez did not pose enough of a threat at the time he was shot to justify the use of deadly force. The commission considered the case in a closed-door session at its weekly meeting Tuesday; it voted unanimously to approve the findings reached in the chief’s report.

The shooting occurred Dec. 18, when police responded to an apartment building in Historic South-Central. Lopez’s sister had called 911 because she was afraid her brother might hurt himself.

Lopez had been acting erratically since coming home earlier that day and at some point pulled out a butcher knife and went outside, his family previously told The Times.

The first officer to arrive at the scene was a gang unit sergeant, who had been driving by when he was flagged down by two people. He found Lopez sitting on the front steps of the building on East Adams Boulevard, with a 6-inch butcher knife pressed against his neck.

That police officer was eventually joined by others, and for nearly 10 minutes they shouted commands at Lopez to drop the knife in English and Spanish. They drew their handguns and directed their cruiser lights at Lopez, who didn’t appear to respond, according to body camera footage of the encounter.

At one point, Lopez held the knife to his throat and made the sign of the cross on his chest with his other hand, prompting one of the officers to fire a less-than-lethal projectile at him. The impact did not cause Lopez to drop the knife, but he did sit back down on the steps.

Lopez sat there for a few minutes, holding the knife between his knees with his head down, according to the chief’s report. Then he suddenly jumped to his feet, which caused his hat to fly off. He took four steps in the direction of an officer holding a 40-millimeter projectile launcher, and then he turned to his left.

As he did, the officer shot him with a 40mm round, which is designed to incapacitate people without killing them. Almost simultaneously, two other officers fired their guns.

Lopez was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A toxicology report revealed the presence of “benzodiazepines, cannabinoids and ethanol” in his bloodstream at the time of his death.

The episode continued a pattern of shootings in which a group of LAPD officers simultaneously fired handguns and weapons meant to avoid killing, such as projectile launchers and Tasers. A Times review of nearly 50 LAPD shootings between 2020 and the start of this year found at least eight such incidents.

The department’s inquiry determined that Officer José Zavala fired three rounds at Lopez, while his partner, Julio Quintanilla, shot once.

Investigators took into consideration the perception of the two officers, but a review of body camera video of the encounter showed that Margarito “did not have the apparent intent to harm” either officer, according to Moore’s report.

In an interview with force review investigators, Zavala said Lopez’s erratic behavior in the minutes leading up to the shooting caused him to “believe that the situation may escalate to the point where deadly force may be justified,” the report said.

“I was afraid, sir. I thought this guy was going to come at me with this butcher knife. He already cut his hand. He cut his throat — he attempted to cut his throat,” Zavala said, according to excerpts from the interview.

But a Use of Force Review Board disagreed, concluding that although Quintanilla and Zavala may well have feared for their own lives — as well as those of their fellow officers and civilians who were standing nearby — ultimately their “fear was also predicated on the likelihood of future harm, not an imminent deadly threat.”

“The board also opined that he did not have the apparent intent or the opportunity to harm the citizens as officers were controlling pedestrian traffic,” the report said. “Based on the totality of the circumstances, the board opined that Officer Zavala’s use of lethal force, all three rounds, was not objectively reasonable, proportional or necessary.”

In October, Lopez’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and the two officers, alleging that they used excessive force and then failed to provide adequate medical care to Lopez.

At a news conference after the suit’s filing, Lopez’s sister said she had called 911 seeking help for her brother because she thought he was in the middle of a mental health crisis. “I don’t want another family to go through this,” another sister, Juana, told reporters in Spanish.

Lopez was the youngest of 10 children and stood less than 5 feet tall. His family said he dreamed of being a singer and often danced on the front steps outside his home.

A call seeking comment from the family’s attorney wasn’t immediately returned Wednesday.

Times staff writer Nathan Solis contributed to this report.

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