Why does the LAPD keep shooting people holding harmless objects?

By | March 4, 2024

The first report of the Los Angeles Police Department over the Feb. 3 killing of Jason Maccani immediately drew attention: An officer fatally shot a man who was “armed with a baton” and threatening people in a building on Skid Row, the department said.

The LAPD update a day later raised new concerns: Maccani, 36, was not holding any weapon, but rather a “white plastic fork.”

Body camera footage released two weeks later raised even more questions about the LAPD’s changing narrative. The footage showed Maccani walking alone from a unit into the hallway of the building, without threatening anyone, when seven officers approached with weapons drawn. The officer who fired the fatal shot opened fire within about 15 seconds of seeing him.

Maccani’s murder has caused national consternation, but the circumstances are not unique. In recent years, the LAPD has repeatedly shot individuals holding common objects that police mistook for weapons or claimed could be dangerous. That includes two shootings of people carrying cellphones; two cases where men had lighters; and shootings of people alternately holding a bicycle part, a car part and a wooden plank.

The shootings, which have cost settlement taxpayers millions, expose ongoing shortcomings in the way the LAPD responds to calls for help, civil rights activists and police experts say.

Many of these incidents have common characteristics. The people shot were often in mental distress. Officers were told that information on the 911 call indicated they were armed. But footage of these incidents consistently shows officers failing to investigate whether the information was accurate, escalating encounters with people experiencing mental health issues, and rushing to use deadly force without clearly communicating with the individuals or in some cases with other agents.

In Maccani’s case, a 911 caller reported that a “homeless guy” had entered his studio in a warehouse in Skid Row, an area known for its large unhoused population. The intruder was “dodging,” “very dangerous” and had a “stick” or “pole,” the caller said, according to LAPD. A dispatcher radioed the incident as an “assault with a deadly weapon,” saying the man was “armed with a large stick,” “was under the influence” and “assaulted an employee.”

Body camera clips from two officers show seven officers crowding a narrow hallway of the building and yelling at Maccani to come forward.

Maccani initially appears calm and holds his hands up as he follows commands to walk backwards toward police, the footage shows. He then turns and begins walking forward, at which point an officer fires a beanbag, a less-lethal foam projectile. The footage then captures a chaotic scuffle, with Macanni screaming as several officers grab him and one fires a bullet.

As officers handcuff Maccani face down, someone can be heard asking, “Did anyone shoot?” When the shooter, identified by the LAPD as Officer Caleb Garcia-Alamilla, responds, “I did,” the first officer asks, “Did you fatally shoot?” Garcia-Alamilla responded that he shot Maccani in the arm, but the medical examiner later said he was hit in the chest. Garcia-Alamilla used to be hired less than a year ago and was on probation.

LAPD Captain Kelly Muniz claimed in a briefing that Maccani “attacked” officers and took their beanbag gun, but the video does not clearly show that. The spokesperson also said officers believed the fork was a “screwdriver” or “knife.” Muniz declined an interview request and did not respond to questions, but said in an email that the LAPD “provides a significant amount of training around the use of force, especially deadly force.”

“It is a failure to de-escalate, a failure to recognize a mental health crisis and an unnecessary use of deadly force,” said Dale Galipo, an attorney representing Maccani’s family in a wrongful death claim against the city. He said there may have been “contagious fire,” where the beanbag firing prompted another officer to fire his weapon, all of which happened within seconds: “It’s poor training and an overreaction. ”

Mike Maccani said his brother, who had lived with his aunt and away from home, sometimes struggled with mental illness, occasionally going off on over-enthusiasm or incomprehensible tangents: “It only happened every few years, but he was never violent or excited. He would just be hyper. We were never afraid. He was a madman.”

He said he did not know why his brother was in that building, but added: “It is not lost on me that this shooting took place in Skid Row, an area with high levels of homelessness, drug use and mental illness, where people are overburdened and victims of police brutality.”

“[LAPD’s] The story keeps changing and the details become more frustrating and sadder, but it doesn’t change the end result,” he said. “That hurts the most. Jason was experiencing a mental health crisis and he was killed when he needed it most.”

‘Hyper vigilance for danger’

There have been reform efforts across the U.S. over the past decade to reduce deadly violence, but police in America continue to kill more people every year. Over the past two years, police in Denver have shot someone holding a marker; an officer in Columbus, Ohio, shot someone holding a vape pen; and in Harford County, Maryland, officers killed someone holding a stick.

Several experts said this is partly due to the way police are trained. “The identity of law enforcement creates a way of seeing things — where cell phones look like guns, cars look like guns, poverty looks like crime,” said James Nolan, a professor of sociology at West Virginia University and a former police officer. “It’s a hypervigilance to danger and it puts both police and the community at risk.”

“The training addresses all possible threats – that anything can be used as a weapon, that anything can kill you, and that it can happen so quickly that officers left unchecked are vulnerable,” said Christopher Bou Saeed, a civilian from LA. rights lawyer.

More tragedies could be prevented if there were attention to alternative responses to people in crisis, Bou Saeed said, and if there were meaningful consequences for excessive force.

Los Angeles has paid out hefty settlements, such as a recent $2.35 million reward for a man shot while holding a cellphone. Bou Saeed noted a U.S. judge’s 2022 ruling that found an LAPD officer directly liable after shooting a man who had not caused “imminent harm” but was holding a piece of wood. “Holding a wooden plank and refusing to drop it is insufficient on objective standards to justify the use of force,” the judge wrote. (Despite the personal liability ruling, the city could still foot the bill for any future settlement.)

Particularly painful for the victims of these shootings and their families are the LAPD’s misleading narratives and aggressive attempts to justify the use of force in the aftermath. In July 2022, two LAPD officers approached Jermaine Petit on a sidewalk in Leimert Park with guns drawn, following a 911 call for a “transient” involving a “gun.”

Footage of the incident shows Petit running away from officers. As they give chase, one can be heard saying to the other, “It’s not a gun, man.” Seconds later, a third LAPD officer driving by in his cruiser shoots Petit from inside the vehicle. One of the officers who initially responded to the call also fires.

Petit was shot several times and suffered injuries from a fall, but survived. LAPD later acknowledged that he was unarmed and holding a small metal car part called an actuator.

Yet Petit was prosecuted for “brandishing a replica rifle,” a charge that is still pending. The officer who opened fire from his car was found to have violated policy, but it is unclear whether he has faced any disciplinary action. LAPD did not respond to requests for comment.

Petit is a U.S. Air Force veteran with severe PTSD and schizophrenia, his mother, Charlotte Blackwell, said in an interview. Since the shooting, the LAPD continues to claim that Petit “pointed” the object at police, even though video shows him running away. “That video hurt my heart. How could they do that to him and then say it was his fault? … It was like a firing squad.”

“I expected the police to demonize Jermaine,” added Petit’s cousin, André Horton. “The department has its goal: to keep a certain group of people in line.” But Horton said it was still difficult to understand why the LAPD so aggressively slandered Petit immediately after shooting him: “I had a feeling of helplessness and frustration that teetered on anger.”

Petit’s mental illness has worsened since the shooting, Blackwell said, and he is currently missing. She fears he won’t survive his next encounter with the police.

‘A free spirit’

As media from across the US report on the last moments of his brother’s life, Mike Maccani says he wants to celebrate how Jason lived: “I’m the oldest, but I really looked up to Jay.”

They grew up in Ventura County, north of LA, where Jason excelled at football: “He was an all-star athlete and he could talk to anyone and be friends with anyone. It was a gift.” Jason graduated from UCLA with a degree in mechanical engineering, then joked that “the only thing he learned in six years was that he didn’t want to work with engineers.”

He worked as a yoga and spin instructor and most recently drove for Uber — enjoying jobs that gave him flexibility and independence, his brother said. He also regularly cared for his grandparents in their final months, helping with daily tasks and reading to them when they began to lose their memory.

“He was a free spirit who liked to live life to the fullest,” Mike said, recalling fond memories of his brother and his girlfriend going to L.A.’s gay bars with Mike. “He talked to anyone who would listen.” During the pandemic, the two talked about social justice: “Jay had a lot of compassion for the homeless and this system that allows people to live homeless or hungry in the richest country in the world.”

Jason was close to all three of his siblings, and the four had planned a “sibling” hangout on February 4. When Jason didn’t show up, the three others took pictures and joked about Photoshopping him into Jason. Shortly thereafter, Mike received the call from the medical examiner that Jason had been murdered.

Mike said Jason’s killing underlines the need for unarmed responses to people in crisis, and that officers who are unable to exercise restraint should not be on the force.

“I hope people understand that this can happen to anyone,” he added. “He had a bachelor’s degree, a loving, supportive family, he had resources, and this police brutality was still happening to him. Now our family joins so many others who have needlessly lost loved ones to police brutality.”

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