Margarito Lopez Jr. had been threatening to kill himself with a butcher knife to his neck for nearly 10 minutes when he suddenly stood up and took a few steps towards the line of Los Angeles police officers in front of him.
Officers had tried to calm the troubled man with flurries of English and Spanish, according to police video of the encounter. They kept their distance while trying to dissuade Lopez from harming herself. They lined up behind a barrier they had created with their patrol cars. And they released a projectile launcher as a “less lethal” option in case they needed to use force.
Lopez stood on the sidewalk and slowly began to turn away. Then the officers opened fire with the projectile weapon – and their handguns. He collapsed to the ground, dead at age 22.
The officers’ decision shocked Lopez’s sister and others watching on the street.
“They could have done so many other things,” Sonia Lopez said in a recent interview with The Times. “They didn’t even try to see if anything else would work.”
Lopez’s shooting outside a south-central apartment building in December is one of at least eight in the past two years in which groups of officers fired handguns simultaneously and weapons intended to avoid killing, such as projectile launchers or Tasers, according to a Times review of nearly 50 LAPD shootings since the start of 2020 along with hours of associated police video.
The approach gave the “less lethal” options little or no time to work and resulted in five fatalities.
Firing often came in sudden bursts after longer standoffs, when officers had prepared with alternative weapons but had not prioritized their use before resorting to more lethal force.
Some suspects were shot from a distance of police, including a man with a sword who was simultaneously shot in the street with a projectile and a rifle bullet from 77 feet away. Others were hit at close range, including a man who was simultaneously shot and Tasered next to his mother in a narrow hallway.
In the eight shootings identified by the Times, the suspect was armed with a knife, blade or blunt object, never a firearm, making it part of a wider increase in shootings of the LAPD against unarmed people. The trend has raised alarm bells within the LAPD, and top commanders have vowed to overhaul training to better teach officers to slow down and let tasers and projectiles work if possible before firing live ammunition.
The trend has also infuriated families of those shot and other police reform advocates, who say the incidents not only show a critical breakdown in police training, but also a lack of interest among officers. for people – many of whom are mentally ill – they end up shooting.
“The LAPD handbook says there must be respect for human life,” said Luis Carrillo, the Lopez family’s attorney. “They do the opposite of having respect for human life. It’s like a knee-jerk reaction where they go from 0 to 100.”
Lopez’s shooting follows two similar incidents in which officers fired live, less-lethal ammunition at knife-wielding men who appeared to be in some sort of crisis.
In early October, officers shot a mentally ill man named Grisha Alaverdyan simultaneously with live ammunition and beanbags after confronting him in the busy tourist corridor and he stepped towards them with a knife.
Alaverdyan was suspected of stabbing Hollywood Boulevard. Once injured, he turned and ran a short distance from the officers before lying on the ground. He was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, found unfit to stand trial in mental health court and ordered to receive treatment.
Later that month, officers shot and killed Melkon Michaelidis as he walked towards them with a knife in the middle of a street in Valley Glen. Officers had been trying to bring down Michaelidis’ blade for more than six minutes, queuing across the street with various weapons drawn – including a shotgun and a Taser.
“Talk to us,” said the officer with the beanbag gun.
“God is on your side man, just put the knife down,” said the officer with the Taser.
The video then showed Michaelidis advancing as officers yelled at him to back off. Then they opened fire simultaneously with beanbags and live ammunition.
“Oh no!” shouted the officer with the Taser – who hadn’t fired yet.
Julie Navasardyan watched it all from the Glam Laser & Beauty Studio across the street, where she’s worked for two years. She said a crowd gathered, including people who appeared to be Michaelidis’ family and comforted each other with the fact that the officers had less-lethal weapons designed to control, not kill.
Officers “shouldn’t have done what they did,” she said. “I just feel bad for the family. They didn’t expect the cops to kill him. They just thought they were going to hold him back.
Most recently, on April 6, officers responded to a report of a man threatening people with a knife in Panorama City. When the suspect, Jesus Castellanos, allegedly began walking towards officers with the knife, they opened fire simultaneously with a Taser and a handgun, police said. He died in an alley.
Video of this incident has yet to be released.
LAPD shootings of people with knives or other edged weapons have been on the rise for the past two years. They accounted for 19% of all shootings in 2019, 23% of shootings in 2020 and 38% of shootings in 2021 – a year that ended with officers opening fire 37 times, killing 18 people. That compares to 27 shootings with seven fatalities in 2020.
Of the suspects in the 37 shootings last year, 17 suffered from a mental health crisis, according to the LAPD. This marked a huge increase from 2020 in shootings entirely due to incidents in which suspects had sharp or blunt weapons, not firearms. More than a quarter of the suspects were homeless.
In January, LAPD Chief Michel Moore acknowledged the 2021 shooting volume was a shift in the wrong direction for a department that has seen a steep decline in police shootings for decades. And he told the Civilian Police Commission he was ordering a “thorough” audit of the department’s training on the use of deadly force as a result.
Moore said the review would look specifically at whether officers give less-lethal weapons enough time to arrest people before resorting to live fire – especially in cases where suspects don’t have firearms. fire. He would also consider whether officers “accurately interpreted” whether they were in “imminent peril” before opening fire, he said.
Moore and other LAPD commanders were back before the police commission on Tuesday, presenting their annual use of force report for 2021, which the commission will revisit for further discussion in May.
The issue of better training on the use of less lethal weapons as an alternative to more lethal force was raised again, with Moore and Deputy Chief Dominic Choi assuring commissioners they were taking the issue seriously and reviewing the training.
Choi said the department had recently developed training aimed at reducing lethal police shootings by “strengthening command and control efforts and accountability and really letting less-lethal options work before they escalate the incident.” .
The new Critical Thinking and Force Mitigation course teaches officers how to have a conversation with suspects rather than just shouting orders at them, Choi said. It also highlights the importance for officers to use space and time to prevent clashes; the principles of “fair and impartial policing”; the department’s requirement that officers render assistance to suspects they have shot; and the availability of other resources to help treat mentally ill suspects, such as the department’s Mental Assessment Unit, Choi said.
Commission President William Briggs, who along with other commissioners has previously raised concerns about the increase in the shooting of people with knives, said he wanted to see “more de-escalation and use of non-lethal force” – and more training on both.
“I strongly believe that we need to train our officers better around this issue, and that is one of the reasons why we as a commission have asked for an increase in the department’s budget to better train our offices for these types of situations as well as others,” Briggs said.
Sonia Lopez wishes the officers who shot her brother had been better trained – or just more compassionate.
Margarito, the youngest of 10 siblings, was less than 5 feet tall and looked much younger than his 22 years. He had grown up in a two-story house along East Adams Boulevard, and often sat on the front steps where he danced to music and dreamed of being a famous singer.
How the lanky young man could have posed enough of a threat to a squad of officers to shoot him just doesn’t make sense to her, she said.
“There were so many of them, and none of them thought to use a Taser?” Sonia said. “They should have thought about it. Maybe he would still be alive.
Instead, neighbors and friends turned the spot where Lopez was shot into a memorial, even though he was buried in the family’s native Guatemala.
Every day, her sister says, people come to lay down candles.
“It’s his graveyard,” she said, “here in front of the house.”
Los Angeles Times