Two Los Angeles police officers who shot and killed a 16-year-old last year in Boyle Heights didn’t turn on their body cameras until after the shooting, according to a report made public Wednesday.
Chief Charlie Beck said in his report to the Police Commission that the LAPD is investigating why one of the officers delayed turning on the department-issued camera until after Jose Mendez was shot. The officer, Beck wrote, had been trained to use the body camera five months earlier.
The second officer who fired his gun was working within a 90-day grace period the LAPD allows officers as they get used to the technology.
The shooting came more than a year after the city announced an ambitious plan to put body cameras on more than 7,000 LAPD officers. Supporters say the cameras can help provide transparency and accountability at a time when policing is under intense scrutiny, particularly shootings by officers.
Beck’s report offers new details about the Feb. 6., 2016, shooting of Mendez, who police say was driving a stolen car and had pointed a sawed-off shotgun at an officer before he was shot. The Police Commission determined that the officers were justified in using deadly force against Mendez.
The footnote about the body cameras, however, raised questions about how officers are using the new technology, which was unveiled in Los Angeles with much fanfare from city officials and a $57.6-million price tag.
Steve Soboroff, a police commissioner who played a key role in bringing the devices to the LAPD, said that although he recognized the pressure police face during rapidly unfolding encounters, not having the footage can be frustrating. He spoke about the issue generally, declining to discuss details of the shooting raised in the board’s closed-door review.
“These body cameras get us to the truth. They are just one more piece of evidence, but they are a really important piece of evidence,” Soboroff said. “It’s one thing not to have them. But to have them and not to use them? That’s a double whammy.”
The LAPD’s policy for the cameras requires officers to turn on the devices before initiating “any investigative or enforcement activity” involving the public, including vehicle stops. If they’re not able to activate the cameras then, the policy states, officers should do so “as soon as it is practical and safe.”
Capt. Andy Neiman, an LAPD spokesman, declined to discuss the details of the internal investigation because it was a personnel matter. He cautioned that “there’s still a learning curve” to the new technology and said because police officers often face fast-moving, dynamic situations, they may not always be able to follow every department rule.
“We don’t want to use that as an excuse, but there are going to be circumstances when that will happen,” Neiman said. “That should not negate or take away from the benefits that we believe body cameras and in-car cameras add to law enforcement.”
Camera footage after the shooting shows the officers pulling Mendez from the car, carrying him down the street and handcuffing him, Beck’s report said. Another camera in the police car captured one of the officers’ actions during the shooting, he added. The recordings have not been made public.
Mendez’s parents on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit, which they announced at a news conference where their lawyer questioned the LAPD’s account of the shooting, including whether the teen had pointed a weapon at the officers. Attorney Arnoldo Casillas shared a grainy security video from a building across the street that showed the events before and after the deadly encounter.
Because of poor lighting, however, the security video didn’t show the shooting itself. Footage from body cameras, Casillas said, could “tell us what really happened.”
The events leading up to the shooting began when the officers spotted Mendez driving a Honda Accord that had recently been stolen, according to Beck’s report. They started to follow the car, which pulled into a driveway off East 6th Street as one officer flipped on the patrol car’s emergency lights.
The footage provided by Casillas showed the car slowly turn into the driveway, the police car behind it.
The officers got out of their patrol car and approached the Honda. They told investigators that they saw Mendez holding the gun, then point it at one of the officers, according to Beck’s report.
“I see the barrel pointing directly at me,” one of the officers told investigators. “My belief was that he was going to shoot.”
The officer fired 11 rounds, his partner two. After the shooting, the video from the attorney showed police pulling Mendez down the street, where they handcuffed him and waited for paramedics to arrive.
Mendez died at the scene. An autopsy report provided by the attorney showed Mendez had more than a dozen wounds from gunfire.
An attorney representing the officers said in an interview they were “totally justified” in using deadly force.
“He had a sawed-off shotgun and he was sticking it up as the officers approached,” attorney Gary Fullerton said.
The officers, identified earlier by the LAPD as Josue Merida and Jeremy Wagner, have both returned to the field. Their names were redacted from the public version of Beck’s report, and it is unclear which officer is the subject of the internal investigation for not turning on his body camera sooner.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Mendez’s father said his son loved soccer and hamburgers, and always helped his mom around the house. Juan Mendez cried as he spoke, holding a rosary-draped urn carrying the teen’s ashes.
“This is what’s left of my son,” he said, “after the police killed him.”
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