The altercation on the tidy, suburban street in Anaheim apparently began with a complaint common in many neighborhoods: a group of teenagers walking through a neighbor’s yard on their way home from school.
But this seemingly mundane dispute spun out of control on West Palais Road on Tuesday when authorities say an off-duty Los Angeles police officer confronted the group. Other teenagers pulled out their cameras, filming the officer as he held a 13-year-old boy by the collar of his sweatshirt, trying to detain him.
The situation quickly escalated from there. At one point, another teen rushed the officer, sending him tumbling over a line of bushes. The officer then reached into his jeans and drew a gun, firing a single shot.
No one was hurt by the gunfire, which Anaheim police said was aimed at the ground. But footage of the encounter stirred uproar across the country, prompting criticism of the off-duty cop’s actions and questions over why investigators arrested two teenagers — but not the officer — at the scene.
As the video went viral Wednesday, more than 300 protesters took to the streets to protest the shooting. Police broke up the demonstration and arrested 23 people, but not before some vandalized the officer’s home.
The tension in Orange County’s largest city comes after several incidents in recent years in which Latino activists have protested police shootings that they felt unfairly targeted the city’s large Latino community. Many of the teens involved in Tuesday’s incident appeared to be Latino, and the officer appears to be white.
On Thursday, officials from both Anaheim and Los Angeles scrambled to calm the public’s concern.
“Like many, I am deeply disturbed and frankly angered by what it shows,” Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait said about the footage of the incident. “The video shows an adult wrestling with a 13-year-old kid and ultimately firing a gun. … It should never have happened.”
Anaheim police are investigating the altercation itself while the Los Angeles Police Department and Inspector General are conducting internal investigations into the officer’s actions.
The Los Angeles Police Commission will ultimately decide whether the officer violated any LAPD rules during the encounter.
“I am very interested in knowing the facts of the incident based on the investigation by the department and the Office of Inspector General that is underway,” said commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill. “Some of the actions — brief as that exchange caught on video may be — do not properly represent what I believe should be expected and reflected by a member of the Los Angeles Police Department when engaging members of the public, be it on-duty or off-duty.”
The officer, whose name has not been released by authorities, was removed from the field, which is standard protocol after shootings by LAPD officers.
An attorney representing the officer, Larry Hanna, declined to discuss the encounter in detail, citing the ongoing investigations. He also declined to name his client or describe his work with the LAPD, saying he was concerned for his safety.
“All of this will come out,” he said. “I just think that people should let the investigators do their job.”
The union representing rank-and-file LAPD officers came out strongly against those who criticized the officer’s action.
“The publicly available cell phone video shows that our officer was physically assaulted by multiple individuals and the officer sustained injuries,” the union said in a statement. “When a police officer is attacked, they have a right and a duty to protect themselves, no matter the age of the offender.”
The encounter unfolded around 2:40 p.m. along West Palais Road, Anaheim police said. Chief Raul Quezada said the officer had been involved in a “ongoing dispute” with juveniles who “continually walked across his property.” Anaheim police said the officer had filed at least one complaint in the past, though it was not clear if it involved the same teenagers he confronted Tuesday.
During that confrontation, Quezada said, the 13-year-old allegedly made a threat that “led the officer to believe that he was going to shoot him.” The officer then decided to try to detain the boy while waiting for Anaheim police to arrive.
Two videos showing part of the confrontation — posted on YouTube and Facebook — show the officer grabbing the boy by his sweatshirt. In one video, the 13-year-old accused the officer of cursing at a girl who walked across his yard. The officer denied making such remarks.
The officer stumbled down the sidewalk with the boy, then pulled him into another yard.
“You’re the one that’s going to jail, not me,” the boy tells him. “You’re starting all this.”
“You shouldn’t have made the threat that you were going to shoot me,” the officer later replies.
“I didn’t say that,” the boy retorts. “I said I was going to sue you.”
Throughout the encounter, other young people approached the pair, occasionally tugging on the 13-year-old’s backpack or trying to separate the two. At one point, another teenager rushed the officer, sending him over the hedge.
As the officer tries to drag the 13-year-old over the bushes, another appears to swing at him. The officer then reaches into his jeans for the gun.
Angelica Rodriguez, 15, was walking home from school when she came across the standoff. She watched as the officer held the boy’s shirt, debating whether she should intervene.
When she heard the gunshot, Rodriguez said, she called 911.
“I was in shock,” she said. “I was wondering why this older man was mishandling such a small kid.”
Quezada said that initially, there was “clear and compelling evidence” that the 13-year-old made a criminal threat against the officer and engaged in battery, prompting police to arrest him. A 15-year-old was also arrested on suspicion of assault and battery. Both have since been released.
By contrast, Quezada said Thursday, there was “insufficient evidence at the time” to prove the officer’s actions constituted a crime. Investigators are continuing to work the case, he said, and expect to present their case to Orange County prosecutors within two weeks.
“Criminal charges could still be brought against any and all parties involved,” he said.
On Thursday, as television trucks lined both sides of West Palais Road, some neighbors began to clean up vandalism from the protests the night before. One window was broken at the officer’s home. Down the street, Edie Gulrich and her husband brought in help to clean up a profanity against police painted on their property.
Gulrich lives in the house where the encounter ensued on video. After the footage went viral, she said, someone threw a rock through her bedroom window, thinking the officer lived there.
Gulrich, who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years, said it’s common for kids from the nearby high school to walk on her frontyard. The majority are respectful, she said.
“Kids have torn up my plants, graffitied my fence. I tell them, ‘I don’t do this to your house so why are you doing it to mine?’ ” she said. “And they shrug their shoulders.”
But she and others have noticed an uptick in crime lately, after a skate park was built nearby. Other residents, along with the officer’s attorney, said people drink in the area or have vandalized property.
“This is disconcerting because this is such a quiet and mellow neighborhood,” she said.
Alex Torres, a senior at Gilbert High School, talked about the incident with a friend as they walked to class Thursday morning.
“What is this?” he said. “The kid shouldn’t have stepped on somebody’s grass, but the cop should have known better. Why lose your temper?”