LAPD

Civilian Deaths in LAPD Standoffs 13 Years Apart Show the Difficulty & Sometimes Devastating Results of Split-Second Decisions

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

By Taylor Walker and Celeste Fremon

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Police Department’s new chief, Michel Moore, gave his second of two press conferences, just a week apart, announcing that an LAPD officer had accidentally fatally shot an innocent civilian while trying to subdue an armed suspect.

Videos from the two incidents, as well as the story of the last time the LAPD mistakenly killed an innocent bystander 13 years ago, highlight the difficulties officers face in making split-second decisions in the midst of highly charged, and dangerous situations. In these cases, officers’ judgment calls had devastating consequences.

Last Tuesday, Chief Moore confirmed that it was a bullet from an officer’s gun that ended the life of Trader Joe’s store manager Melyda Corado, 27, during a shootout at the Silver Lake store. Twenty-eight-year-old Gene Evin Atkins reportedly shot his grandmother and wounded another woman before leading LAPD officers on a chase, then crashing his car into the Trader Joe’s. Officers hit Corado while exchanging gunfire with Atkins during the deadly standoff, portions of which can be seen in video footage released by the department last week.

The officers, Moore said during the press conference, will have to live the rest of their lives wondering if they made the right call.


Death at a Homeless Outreach Center

Then, this Tuesday, the chief released the video of an incident that occurred in mid-June, which shows officers’ bullets fatally hitting a homeless woman who was being held hostage at knifepoint, as the cops were aiming at the man who was holding the woman and the knife.

The incident began on June 16, after police responded to a call about a stabbing outside of Central Lutheran Church in Van Nuys that houses a homeless outreach center.

When the officers, Eugene Damiano, Andrew Trock, and Cristian Bonilla, arrived on scene, they found Guillermo Perez, 32, standing alone outside the church, wielding a long knife. The officers ordered Perez to drop the weapon. Perez did not comply with officers’ repeated shouts to drop the blade. The video (see above) shows the man using a folding chair to block the officers’ bean bag rounds.

Perez then moved further away from officers, toward a bystander named Elizabeth Tollison, 49. Perez grabbed Tollison, and held a knife to her throat. According to witnesses, Perez actually “sawed” at Tollison’s throat, cutting it.

Fearing matters would rapidly grow worse, officers reportedly fired 18 shots at Perez, killing him. But two of the bullets hit Tollison. The woman died two days later at the hospital.

“It’s been 13 years since an officer’s gunfire has killed an innocent bystander or hostage in this department,” Moore said during Tuesday’s press conference. “In the last six weeks, it’s happened twice.”


Heartbreak 13 Years Ago

The hostage incident of 13 years ago, which Chief Moore mentioned, was a high profile tragedy that unfolded in the summer of 2005.  That shooting both tore a community apart, and devastated what was arguably the nation’s most skilled SWAT team.

Image: Suzie Lopez, courtesy of the Lopez family.

The problems began on July 10, 2005, when officers found themselves in a dangerous stand-off with a drunk and coked-up used car salesman named Raul Peña, who had his 18-month old daughter with him at his dealership as he fired on police.

Before 2005, the department’s SWAT cops had performed approximately 3800 successful rescues in SWAT’s nearly 40-year history, and never lost a hostage in such a stand-off.

(WitnessLA’s editor, Celeste Fremon, wrote about the two-and-a-half hour standoff for LA Weekly in 2005. Read the archived stories: here and here.)

The story actually began the night before the shootout with the LAPD, when a family dispute escalated to the point that Peña reportedly held baby Suzie’s mother, Lorena Lopez, and her 16-year-old daughter, Ilsy Depaz, at gunpoint at Lopez’s home, before the mother managed to talk him down.

The next morning, Peña returned to work at his car dealership down the street from Lopez’s home. Lorena Lopez used the opportunity to make a “domestic terror report” to the LAPD about her baby’s father. Later in the day, however, Pena returned to the house, and asked to take baby Suzie back to the dealership with him. Knowing he adored the toddler, and likely not wishing to inflame him, Lopez let him take the little girl.  It was a fateful decision.

Things grew worse when, teenage Ilsy Depaz followed Peña and baby Suzie back to the dealership, intending to give her stepfather a piece of her mind. When that went poorly, she called 911, saying that Peña was physically threatening her. (Ilsy was later able to slip out of the dealership to waiting police.)

Lopez begged officers not to shoot into the dealership. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot, there’s a baby!” Lopez said she told officers on the scene.

The LAPD said they were concerned that when Peña began firing on officers, he was using his baby daughter as a “human shield.”

Security videos of the incident, however, show Peña carrying Suzie in the crook of his arm, not positioning her in front of his body.

In any case, the man was holding his daughter while engaged in a gunfight, willingly putting the toddler in mortal danger.

Of course, officers, too, endangered the baby when they fired back at her father.


No good options

Fearing that Peña’s emotional state was decompensating—based his reaction in a series of phone calls—a highly-trained four-person SWAT team decided they needed to enter the dealership.

Once inside, the team threw a flashbang grenade into the tiny office where Peña was holed up, hoping to distract the man. Instead, Peña began firing on the officers, hitting one of the four in the shoulder.

“Once they were inside and Peña was firing on them, they went forward in seconds,” Gascon said. “They had to. If they’d tried to back out, they’d have been sitting ducks.”

The remaining three blew through the office door, in strict prearranged formation, weapons firing.

When the shooting stopped, Peña was dead, hit with multiple shots to his upper body.

But so was the little girl. She had been shot with one rifle bullet through the head, and had some lacerations on her leg. She was in her father’s arms.

“I’ve seen officers cry plenty of times, but never SWAT, and never like this,” then-Assistant Chief George Gascón (who is now San Francisco’s District Attorney) said during a press conference, of his grief-stricken SWAT team.

Critics of the shooting questioned whether the SWAT officers who took out both father and daughter, or the other officers on the scene, could have done anything differently to save Suzie.

Then, and now, law enforcement officials stressed that officers are forced to make extremely difficult split-second decisions to protect their own safety and the safety of the public during encounters that are often tense and rapidly evolving—and often feature no good options.

In 2005, Gascón reiterated that the department and the officers involved were “devastated” by Suzie’s death. “I’m a parent,” Gascón said. “The officers on the entry team were there to save lives. They share that mother’s anguish.”

After the Trader Joe’s shooting last month, Chief Moore said the officers involved will now “forever go through their lives debating whether that was what they had to do.” The Coronado family’s pain “is unimaginable,” Moore said. “We share that pain.”


The Difference Between Then and Now

Thirteen years ago under then-Chief Bill Bratton, the LAPD was much better at community relations than it was in the bad old, pre-Rampart days. But it also wasn’t known for its transparency when it came to officer-involved shootings.

Now, in both the Trader Joe’s and Van Nuys shootings, Chief Moore released officer body cam footage, under the department’s new policy to voluntarily release video to the public within 45 days of a “critical incident.” Previously, the department withheld videos from the public, unless a court ordered the footage to be released.

On Wed, July 31, LA Times reporter Maya Lau, who covers the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, lauded the LAPD policy on Twitter. “This month, LAPD released body cam videos of 2 shootings by police and ID’d the officers involved,” Lau wrote. “By contrast, neighboring LA Sheriffs Dept @LASDHQ, w/nearly as many officers, doesn’t have dept-issued body cams & doesn’t generally ID officers in shootings.”

The LAPD made the first video public under the policy back in June. The incident involved a man who died in police custody. Unlike other departments now making police videos public, the LAPD did not release all of the footage of the two-hour standoff, but rather, 17 minutes and 30 seconds of slick, highly produced video with narration.

The department hopes this strategy will provide the public with “context on one one-hundredth of a second decisions,” and give insight into policing issues in general, according to LAPD Commission President Steve Soboroff. But the LAPD’s methods have drawn criticism from the ACLU and others who want all of the footage of a critical incident, rather than department-selected highlights with a “Hollywood” treatment.


Where We Go From Here

As in the Pena case, the videos of both the Van Nuys and Trader Joe’s shootings have raised questions about how the deaths of Corado and Tollison could have been avoided.

On Wednesday, Tollison’s three adult children filed a lawsuit against the LAPD and the City of Los Angeles, alleging wrongful death and negligence on the part of the officers involved.

“Ms. Tollison died as a direct and proximate result of the gunshot wounds negligently inflicted upon her by the three LAPD officers,” according to The Cochran Firm, which is representing Tollison’s family. “While Ms. Tollison was being held by Mr. Perez, the three LAPD officers negligently assessed the circumstances presented to them, and negligently discharged their department-issued firearms at Mr. Perez and Ms. Tollison…”

Moore says that the department will be implementing new training for officers, and that department members will soon be replacing the beanbag guns currently in use with different less-than-lethal weapons that fire large, 40mm “foam baton” rounds that are reportedly more effective at stopping armed individuals than the bean bag rounds.


Image of Elizabeth Tollison courtesy of The Cochran Firm and the Tollison family.

24 Comments

  • He started to slice into her neck, you think he was doing that for fun? I just qualified this past week, I missed a head shot. Sue me, it was hot and there was plenty of sun. These officers were in an entirely different situation. No officer wants to take the life of an innocent. Who knows if they will last their career, if they’ll all even continue on after this. Do the Cochran Ghouls care, of course not. Does her family, nope no way. I don’t know why she was in that shelter and am sad for her death, same as I was the Trader Joe’s young lady. I of course feel for every officer involved. As some on the left want to call mental health professionals out to these incidents and have police stand down, or disband us altogether as BLM wants, what would they have done to help this woman? Would more innocent victims have died? No easy answers, tragedies happen and when they do count on the vultures and haters to take center stage and know the last person they’ll care one bit about is the involved cop…fact.

  • The scumbag who started it all. A recently released career felon, gang member with a history of violence and domestic abuse.

    The real problem is with our politicians who make weak laws and water down sentencing rules to “save a buck” or “right the wrongs perpetrated against the less fortunate”. Also, the activist judges and lawyers who are more concerned about suspect/criminal rights versus those of the victims and the safety of greater society.

    Yet, the officers represent the “grunts of the criminal justice system” who suffer the criticism, media fueled “trial and convictions by the court of public opinion” and are faced with no one situations like this. They have to be the ones whose lives, reputation, livelihood and sanity are put on the line everyday.

    Let’s start putting the blame where it really lies.

  • Surefire, what is amazing to me is that you folks can never admit something went wrong. You have a dead civilian with two LAPD bullets inside her, of the 18, 18, listen, 18, fired. By definition, someone f@^#* up. By definition. Part of the problem is that LEOs think they are better at their job then they are, and fail to accept their limitations, some of those limitations are merely human limitations. They think that they are the officers they see on cop shows. Its not like in the cop shows where you are brave, tough, and great shots. For god sake, the last LEO that was a good shot was Dorner, and he is dead. In that episode, and I hate to bring it up again, you fire over 100 round at two 4’9″ latinas because you think they are a 6’2″ black man, of which you are scared shitless. Over 100! Does that not sound wrong to you? And, you cannot even hit the ladies. 100 rounds. That is how bad of a shot those officers were. And, then you complain because they sued and got paid by the city.

    Second, no one is calling to disband the LAPD or the Sheriff. What people want is for you to do your job, imbued with the spirit of the motto on the side of your patrol car – in a way that protects and serves. They want all those dirty cops who are on some list as liars and who the DA can’t trust to testify off the force. Where else can you keep a job where your employer knows you have lied on the job? They want who ever f@#(# s up so bad that a civilian or an unarmed person is killed to at least get fired. They want you treat the people in the hood with the same respect that you treat the people on the westside. And, do not tell me you do because Ive been been on both ends of town – on the westide when you stop someone you actually ask, “sir, do you know why I stopped you;” on the south or east side, people have to ask you, “why did you stop me,” and if its a brown or black young man, your response many a time is no response or a hardy “shut the f#@& up.” So, stop whining, no one wants to disband the LAPD, they want good officers, not cowboys. Finally, the way you feel after hearing the lawyer from the Cochran firm, is the way I feel when I here your union officials or lawyer speak.

    Conspiracy, “weak laws?” We incarcerate more people in this country that any other western nation, hell more than autocratic or thrid world countries, and for longer periods and sometimes for crimes that are not even crimes in other western nations. Finally, we do it in a racist way that targets minorities from the beginning to end, from the stop and frisk to the plea bargain and sentencing. And, that scumbag you speak of is dead, and if he weren’t he would be imprisoned for life for some bad shot LAPD officer killing the woman. Same with the Trader Joe’s shooting, LAPD killed an innocent woman, and the brother will pay for it. So, stop whining on how we are so soft on crime. The brother from Trader Joe’s will spend his life in prison because of some bad shot LAPD officers. He should go to jail for shooting his grandmother, holding the girlfriend and employees hostage, no one will argue with you. So, stop whining, please.

    And, this woe-is-me song is getting old. Officers are not the “grunts of the criminal justice system.” You get paid well, with a nice pension, and great benefits. Then, you can collect disability benefitswhile scuba diving. Where else, please tell me, can you get a full pension for working as few years as you do. Who the f@#% retires at 50 or 55 in the private sector. Some would call it welfare, you call it pay, whatever, just stop whining about the job. If it is so bad, get another one.

    Take care, gentlemen.

    • CF…we incarcerate people because they commit crimes and need to be put away for the greater good of society. This is what a civilized society 5th. If you want to live in a “Utopian” dream-like state and think no one violates the law, all police are bad and criminals don’t exist, you keep on dreaming.

      Oh…how do you know what my job I have and what my pension is? Your reference to “you” is way off base. Not everyone in law enforcement is cruising the streets. There are lawyers, judges and numerous other support jobs in the criminal justice systems that share many of the same opinions as working “Leo’s”

  • Besides being a cowardly pos, you’re a liar. You could give a damn about the released felon gangster cutting the woman’s throat. You’re only here to bitch the police and I could post where several accounts where BLM has called for the disbanding of the police so stfu you dimwit. I’m not scared shitless of any Black or anyone else, it’s same old bs fallback that means nothing you racist little nobody. Of course something tragically went wrong and your whole hate based narrative of bs proved my point. It’s just “Fuck The Police” with you and the Celeste groupies and nothing more. If her head got sawed off, no big deal as long as the cops stood by and didn’t make any mistake. You live for that, you have no life otherwise, hard to get anything going when you live in the gutter.

  • By the way dumbass, minorities target themselves by committing so much of the crime in this country, especially for being so little of the population. You know it and can’t argue it. I get the feeling you’re inbred from the lack of any type of debate you actually ever come up with from a stat point of view, then again you can’t, can you dummy? Back under the rock sissy.

  • Oh and be sure you have no idea how I work, only that it goes up a notch based on the individual’s actions, not on their skin color. That being said, lots of dumb asses, like you, let their skin color dictate a response that can end up causing them to have a long day or night. Sad that’s what it’s come down to because of the narrative bitches like you and the WLA crew push, in fact a lot of unnecessary bloodshed can be tied to your type words you ignorant fools…happy.

  • “The brother from Trader Joe’s will spend the rest of his life in prison because of some bad shot LAPD officers”. So typical of the left these days. Cf’ s blind hatred of the cops is so great she’s willing to overlook the fact that the trader joe’s bro murdered his own grand ma and shot another family member prior to his rampage. Doesn’t grandma’s life count for at least a life sentence? To cf she’s just an inconvenient nobody, reminds me of Witness la’s attitude towards victims.

  • I’ve been retired for several years now. I do recall being trained to be aware of your background prior to shooting. There are going to be times when you will need to hold ur fire….ie…Trader Joe’s. None of the three officers in the hostage video had a clear shot. Why one of them didn’t manuever for a clear head shot….single action is beyond me.

    • Hollywood has sensationalized shootings to the point where the public base their theories on scenes from Jason Bourne to “Die Hard” sequels. What are the realistic chances of a head shot based on distance and movement with a handgun? I’ll tell you, zero. Hate to burst your bubble “Bandwagon” but that’s a fact. Totally unfortunate for all.

  • So in ur world the answer is 18 shots and kill the hostage. If you don’t think you could maneuver into a position that allows you a clear shot, then perhaps u should find another line of work. Yes one shot with a steady hand could possibly have ended the problem without the death of the hostage. You might consider practicing that shot instead of bitching about what you can’t do.

    • With a Sniper MOS in USMC and as a retired LEO, I assure you that I don’t bitch nor do I second guess any officer in any shooting. I can speculate and give my opinion all day but the bottom line is that I was not there. Just like when rolling code, we have to arrive safely before we can act. Does the status of a hostage really matter how we react?

  • Starlight. If the hostage had been a cop, would you have been okay with their tactics or would you have attempted to try something else. We used to practice that scenario back in the day.

    • Not knocking your training which under the best circumstances would be risky
      I applaud the officers for doing the best of what they thought (at that moment) was expedient to quell the situation with what they had considering the circumstances. As I stated previously it was tragic for both, victim and officers

  • Starlight….like you I am entitled to my opinion. I did eight years in the Army and was involved in two shootings as a law enforcement officer. And yes I think the status of a hostage has a bearing on the tactics we decide to employ. Nothing wrong with offering an after action report after a shooting. That’s how we learn and adapt our tactics. At the least….I think they should have moved closer to the suspect before engaging him and tried for a better shot. Law enforcement is inherently dangerous….but that’s what we get paid for…..sometimes you have to earn your pay check.

  • Question:
    What is the most important weapon/piece of equipment a police officer always has available?
    Answer:
    His brain.

    Question:
    Can you use one word that describes what a police officer’s job is?
    Answer:
    Communication

    The June 16, 2018 Critical Incident Van Nuys, CA video should be used as the case study for the potential undesirable consequences when the political leadership of a city goes for 20 years exalting a concept that some arbitrary staffing number(10,000 officers in uniform) is the most crucial objective for its police dept and the highest holy grail for public safety.

    Manpower certainly has it’s important role.
    Manpower is essential for crowd control at parades and football games and for maintaining order when the Lakers win an NBA Championship.
    Manpower is essential for keeping response time for non-emergency calls to 60 minutes or less.
    But when your police dept. is focused on increasing manpower while brainpower is actually decreasing –
    you can end up with Van Nuys June 16, 2018.

    There is a simple exercise in Acting 1 class that can be applied to evaluating Van Nuys June 16.
    2 students go up in front of the class.
    The objective of Student 1 is to get Student 2 to make a particular action – for example, to drop the knife.
    Student 1 uses his spoken words and body/facial visuals in the effort.
    How many different ways can Student 1 say “drop the knife”.
    The various messages and intentions behind each call of “drop the knife” can be placed into one of 2 main categories –
    Threats or Inducements.
    The objective is to get the desired action.
    The police officers in Van Nuys found only one way to say “drop the knife”.
    It was not effective. So they repeated it louder and louder.
    If we needed RoboCops, we can probably purchase and deploy some.
    But we are still using human cops, because manpower and bodies in uniform is not what we needed in Van Nuys.
    We needed brainpower.
    The cops in Van Nuys June 16 may have acted thoroughly within policy,
    but for some reason brainpower was turned off.
    And the results are Fail.

  • I once remember hearing a speaker comment on how in the “new age of policing” a new model of law enforcement officer was going to be needed. No longer did police departments and society want the “battle hardened” ex-military veteran who didn’t take crap from anyone and was calm and cool under stress. Instead, the new norm would be the “social worker” type of law enforcement officer who talked and negotiated first and acted second.

    With most police departments suffering from recruitment and public relations problems as well as media generated/fuel anti-law enforcement bias, there is little time available for scenario training to help build perishable skills in high-pressure, quick-decision stressful type situations. It didn’t help that toward the end of President Obama’s administration a narrative was pushed and acted upon regarding the “de-militarization” of the police.

    These officers did what they thought was best considering the actions of the suspect and based on their training and experiences. They were also human and not “supermen”. It’s always easy to critique someone in the stress-free safety and security of your home or office. I’m sure, standing in front of someone who is holding a hostage and watching them actively cut into someones neck has to be high on the list of all around no-win, lose-lose training/real-life scenarios.

    Case in-point.

  • Where was the thinking? I could not see any thinking.
    There is more than one way to skin a cat.
    Unless, you are set on skinning the cat only one way and have closed off consideration of any other possible ways.
    I’m sitting here in my armchair and it wasn’t me. And if it was me, I might have done the same thing.
    But Afterwards, I would reflect and realize that I could have done better.
    And they could have done better.
    What caused the tunnel vision, the rigid tactical performance?
    What prevented them from applying the flexibility, ingenuity and creative potential of their brainpower?
    “Drop the knife, drop the knife!”
    This is the LAPD in 2018. Can’t anyone there at least give the order to the suspect in Spanish!
    Blam!, blam!, Blam! Blam! Blam!
    “Drop the knife, drop the knife!”
    The suspect is lying shot dead on the ground and these cops are still yelling at him to drop the knife.
    To the armchair viewer, they appear to be functioning on autopilot.
    Actually, you had one supervising officer who shackled himself to his own poor preconceptions and failed to use any of the information presented before him to advance his understanding of the situation and tune his management of strategy and tactics.
    And 2 supervised officers who must have felt prohibited from contributing their creative brainpower towards achieving solutions and became locked into the role of serving as mere physical appendages in service of their supervisors intent.
    The supervising officer instructs the back-up unit to remain a block away in case the suspect tries to make a run for it. That effectively precluded the other unit from participating in an assessment of the situation and contributing their brainpower towards reaching a solution.
    The suspect did not run.
    He had already run out of places to run.
    Depressed, dejected, despondent, defeated, frustrated, in a state of drunken despair.
    Exactly the situation that a reasonable person might suspect to encounter from a call about a suspect who assaulted a family member or girlfriend. A similar scenario as Gene Atkins.
    Police threatening to inflict immedeate physical damage and severe pain upon the suspect will not cause him to obey.
    The suspect reacts by increasing his resistance and hardening his defiance.
    Shoot me! I don’t care. Go ahead and shoot me!
    Give me a suicide by cop.
    What’s the matter?
    Hurry up and shoot me, already.
    Ok, then I’ll grab this woman standing here and place a knife to her throat.
    Now shoot me!

  • Conspiracy:. I understand the initial reaction to defend the officers actions especially in the anti police environment we are in today. But we have to be able to critique ourselves. None of the officers in the incident had “a shot”. Yet they all took one firing 18 rounds. Why?. I don’t know a law enforcement agency in the country that teaches shooting eighteen rounds at a suspect who is holding a knife to someone’s throat. Marlin is right the officers were locked in and unable to perceive other options. Inevitably the shooting may have occurred with the same results. Perhaps we can all learn from this incident.

  • Celeste you make me sick. If it was a sheriff’s case you would be calling for the hanging. Those cops had no business shooting period. You lock him down and get separation. Typical bullshit. I knew as soon as the shooting occurred it was an officer that did it. Don’t get me wrong the knucklehead made the whole thing happen but the cops are not trained. Just like Rodney king, LAPD formed a riot training unit like LASD did as well with myself, Sid Heal, and a few other people. Lapd was called camp snoopy. They trained everyone for about a year or two, then they stop. Designated shooter training was trained by SEB for years, not so much anymore cost too much. Half your stories are only half truths, just like the INFAMOUS Jump out boys. Diane Sawyer your not.

    • as Usual because Its LAPD you left out a lot of details. First of all it was a highly trained swat team that decided to enter the garage, which unless the victim is about to die is never done. all the officers were behind cover wearing full body armor Next step is to use a family member or crisis negotiator to establish contact and wait. You get as much save ground and if necessary a sniper takes one shot through peridal band as John Aujay did in Glendale Bang Robber but got slaughtered for it even though victim was un injured. If a swat team takes a shot when they see everything unfolding in front of them it should be a designated sniper shot from one rifleman, not three guys with guns shooting 700 rounds a minute. The sad part is your told the right answers but choose to ignore them with no consequences. Christina Gonzales started a small riot claiming sheriffs killed a party goer un armed on national tv. In fact it was a gang member with two guns who shot first he was shot in the body from across the street and died. Christina says the poor youth was shot point blank in the face but really he was short in the chest. that night was hell, but you toolset well. Two Joan of arks

Leave a Comment