A man armed with a knife was shot dead by the police. Then an LAPD helicopter made it worse

The police shootings started like so many others.

Los Angeles Police Department officers responded to a call from a knife-wielding man acting erratically. One of them opened fire when the man came aggressively towards them.

If it had ended there, the man would probably still be alive. But a police helicopter rumbled in, another patrol car arrived and the chain of events that followed left the man lying on the ground with gunshot wounds that would eventually kill him.

Samuel Soto’s death – and the inevitable realization that it probably could have been avoided – was a rare but stark reminder to LAPD officials that their heavy reliance on the department’s helicopter fleet carries the potential for unintended tragedy.

A detailed account of 53-year-old Soto’s death was included in a report that LAPD Chief Michel Moore recently sent to the Civilian Police Commission. Last week, the commission ruled unanimously that the officers involved in Soto’s murder did not violate department policies.

It was an off-duty police officer visiting Los Angeles from San Antonio who called 911 around 8:45 p.m. on July 26 last year. He told the operator that a man just off Pico Boulevard on Union Avenue was cutting himself with a knife, according to the report.

Agent Eduardo Martinez and his partner, Ruben Mejia, arrived a few minutes later. Seeing Soto on the street with the knife, they jumped out of their vehicle and pulled out their guns. On body camera video that was released after the shooting, one of the officers is heard saying, “Hey, let me see your hands, bro!”

Soto instead charged towards Martinez, who fired two shots at him, missing both times, according to the report. Undeterred, Soto kept advancing towards Martinez, who fired once more, this time knocking Soto down and knocking him to the ground.

The knife fell from Soto’s hand and Mejia approached, putting the weapon out of Soto’s reach.

Mejia had called for help on his radio – as police are required to do after a shooting – and several officers rushed to the scene.

The radio traffic also caught the attention of officers flying in “Air 10” – an LAPD helicopter.

In Los Angeles, the department’s airships are a common sight and soundtrack to the city. The LAPD began using its first helicopter in 1957 to help monitor traffic along the city’s burgeoning highway system. Two decades later, he formed the Air Support Division. The unit now has 18 helicopters, two of which are often in the air at any given time.

The LAPD operates one of the largest municipal fleets in the nation, which it says plays a valuable role in tracking crime suspects and patrolling the city from above. Yet the helicopters are also a source of frustration and distrust for many people, who see them as an unwelcome intrusion and a reminder of what they see as the authoritarian presence of the LAPD.

The pilot flying Air 10 came over the shooting scene and maneuvered the helicopter lower toward the street.

As he did so, an injured Soto rose to his feet. Martinez and Mejia yelled at him to stop moving. Ignoring commands, Soto started running towards Martinez, who backed off.

The first officers to respond to the call for help were Officer David Voci and his partner. They arrived at a chaotic scene and drew their weapons. Voci told investigators he saw Soto advancing on Martinez and assumed he was still armed with a knife. Both Martinez and Mejia, he noted, had “urgent” expressions, according to Moore’s report.

The lapping of the helicopter’s blades and the roar of its engine filled the air.

Unsure if Soto had dropped the knife, Martinez asked Mejia if he was still armed. “No, no, no, he doesn’t have the knife!” Mejia shouted back. “He doesn’t have the knife!”

Mejia then yelled at Voci and her partner to tell them the same. No knife.

But the helicopter was too low and too loud. Voci said he could hear a jumble of voices shouting over the din of Air 10, but could not tell who was talking or what was being said. The only word he could make out, shouted over and over, was “knife, knife,” he said.

When Soto then turned in Voci’s direction and put his right hand behind his back, Voci yelled at him, “Let it go!” Soto continued towards him and Voci could see an object in his hand. Voci fired three shots. Soto collapsed to the ground – a cell phone in his hand.

Soto died of his injuries five months later. Death prompted California Atty. General Rob Bonta’s office opens its own investigation into the shooting. It’s in progress.

It was not the first time that an LAPD helicopter had added to the confusion of an already difficult situation.

In May 2020, a pilot flew over after the shooting of Rommel Mendoza. Mendoza, 50, was killed in North Hollywood after confronting officers while brandishing a sword and demanding to be shot. According to a report at the time, officers at the scene complained to investigators that the helicopter was flying “very low” and was “very loud”, making their job difficult.

And in May 2007, before LAPD officers violently cleared MacArthur Park of a crowd of largely peaceful protesters, the sound of a police helicopter prevented protesters from hearing a dispersal order.

Daniel Schwarzbach, executive director of Airborne Public Safety Assn., a trade group, said while air support is a valuable police tool, it can confuse crime scenes.

“I’ve been to the scenes myself where aircraft noise interfered with ground communication,” said Schwarzbach, who spent 38 years with the Houston Police Department, 30 of which were flying helicopters.

As a pilot, he said he tries to communicate with officers on the ground and be prepared to gain altitude if the situation calls for it.

In his report, Moore did not specify what assistance, if any, the helicopter officers provided to others on the ground and whether the helicopter should have been there at all. In a footnote, the chief said the chief of the Air Support Division was asked to discuss with the officers “dynamic situations and the possibility of gaining altitude to improve communications between ground staff”.

Although the commission concluded that Martinez and Voci were justified in using lethal force, Moore’s report cited other points during the incident where officers deviated from department policies on the how to deal with people who are armed and in crisis.

None of the first officers, Moore wrote, had working Tasers due to a lack of battery. Investigators have learned that the shortage has existed for months and affects several divisions of the department.

According to Moore, the issue was resolved after the department adopted a newer version of the device, which can be used to briefly incapacitate an uncooperative suspect by shocking them with an electrical charge.

Moore disagreed with the majority of an LAPD internal review board, which blamed an officer who arrived at the scene after Soto’s shooting and tried to restrain him by stepping on Soto’s calf – a decision discouraged by the department. The chief refused to discipline the officer.

In his report, Moore noted that while officers are trained to take their time and defuse incidents like the one that led to Soto’s shooting, the man’s refusal to drop the knife as he stood approaching the police required quick action.

The revelations in the Soto case come as the family of another man shot dead by the LAPD filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, challenging a police account that Rodolfo Torres, 30, pointed a gun on officers before they opened fire on him. on a South Los Angeles block this month.

Justin Sterling, an attorney for the Torres family, said he filed the lawsuit on Friday, usually a first step toward a trial, and asked the department to release any body camera footage of the incident.

Torres was killed on July 2, after police responded to a report that a man fired a gun and encountered Torres in the area of ​​36th Place and Maple Avenue, Moore told the commission. police last week.

Torres appeared under the influence of drugs or alcohol, ignored police orders to stop walking and removed his hands from his pockets, Moore said. At one point, police fired at him with a 40 millimeter foam tipped launcher, sending Torres falling to the ground.

Moore said Torres refused to drop a weapon while on the ground. Officers opened fire when he pointed the gun at them, fatally wounding him, Moore said. No officers or bystanders were injured in the shooting. Torres died some time later in a hospital.

Video recorded on a passerby’s mobile phone and seen by The Times shows the moments before officers opened fire on Torres, who was lying in the street.

The video, taken about half a block away, shows a group of officers with their rifles and flashlights trained on Torres, barking orders as they slowly back away. It is not possible to see if Torres is holding a gun.

Suddenly, a crackle of gunfire is heard as the camera cuts out.

Los Angeles Times

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