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Analysis: LAPD still shoots people holding ‘edged weapon’ in a crisis

The Los Angeles Police Department has long sought to curb police shootings of people in crisis armed with knives, machetes or other sharp objects.

Despite rolling out policies to prevent shootings in such encounters, a Times analysis of LAPD data shows that there have been more shootings this year than there have been in all of 2022. The department is on pace to surpass last year's total of 11.

In the first six months of 2024, officers shot six people who were holding a sharp object while experiencing a behavioral or psychological crisis (including people believed to be suicidal or under the influence of drugs or alcohol). Four people were killed. There have been 17 police-involved shootings this year, including incidents involving knife attacks.

According to the Times analysis, officers have fired shots in similar situations at least 56 times since 2018, killing 35 people and wounding 19.

The LAPD's publicly released data doesn't record killings of people in crisis situations. The Times review was based on a variety of records, including information disclosed in litigation, and reflects shootings that aren't always included in annual reports on police use of force.

The Los Angeles Police Department, along with other police agencies across the country, has adopted guidelines that prioritize the use of de-escalation techniques and “less-lethal” alternatives to lethal force.

Civilian police watchdogs are scrutinizing the issue anew in the wake of recent high-profile cases of officers killing mentally disabled people.

In one clash in Koreatown in the spring, The video is A man having a bipolar disorder attack in his parents' apartment walked slowly toward police holding a knife, and an officer shot and killed him.

The May 2 killing of Yong Yang, 40, followed by two other fatal shootings involving knife attacks, prompted the Los Angeles Police Commission to call for a report on police training and policies.

“We want to ensure that all other options have been exhausted before lethal force is used,” the committee's vice chair, Rasha Gerges-Shields, said at a committee meeting in June.

Family members attended the funeral last month of Yong Yang, who was shot and killed by a Los Angeles Police Department officer while holding a knife in his home.

(Wally Scalisi/Los Angeles Times)

LAPD officers are trained to use space and time to prevent a confrontation from escalating to the point where they have to fire their weapons, said Jonathan Wender of Police Solutions, a police training company.

Wender said some police departments are training their officers to simply “contain” suspects if they're inside and don't pose a threat, rather than rushing to make arrests.

Wender said officers are encouraged to use Tasers, bean bag shotguns or launchers to subdue people in crisis, but he said these “less lethal” weapons can be ineffective or have unintended consequences, such as encouraging subjects to lunge toward officers.

“There will be side effects,” he said.

The LAPD previously acknowledged that recent confusion over state law sometimes meant officers waited too long to use their 40mm launchers in encounters, but the department later updated its policy to allow them to be used immediately against those posing a threat to public safety.

The Times reviewed LAPD records for more than 200 incidents in which officers shot people over more than five years, as well as related body camera footage, search warrant affidavits and civil lawsuits filed by families of those killed and injured.

Behavioral crises involving knives accounted for about 27% of police shootings from 2018 to present, with the most incidents recorded in the LAPD's Central and Valley Divisions. The average length of service for the officers who fired their weapons was about nine years.

The Times found that shootings of people with sharp objects are more likely to result in deaths than confrontations involving suspects with guns, which resulted in deaths less than a third of the time. Knife incidents resulted in a death more than 60 percent of the time, including at least one innocent bystander.

Of the 56 knife shootings, police officials deemed eight to be “outside of code,” meaning they should not have happened according to police standards.

In two cases, officers accidentally shot others while trying to save the lives of victims of knife attacks.

In 2021, an 11-year-old boy who was being stabbed by his mother was hit by “bullet fragments” when police opened fire to thwart the attack. The boy's mother was injured.

In another incident in 2018, police shot a man who was holding a knife to his ex-girlfriend's throat at a homeless outreach center in Van Nuys, killing both men.

Authorities said before both shootings, officers had attempted to seek help from the county's Systemwide Mental Assessment and Response Team (SMART), which pairs officers with mental health clinicians. But all of the city's SMART units were overwhelmed with other calls, leading former Police Chief Michel Moore to order a review of dispatch procedures for mental health-related incidents.

Los Angeles Police Department officials say they long ago stopped teaching the “21-foot rule,” which suggests that a person with a knife poses an imminent threat if they are within that distance.

But former Police Commissioner William Briggs said this mindset persists, with many officers trained from the time they first arrive on the job to believe that a person with a knife could always harm them from a distance. As a result, he said, some officers choose to shoot with little or no time to consider “less lethal” options.

“It's like bringing a gun to a knife fight,” said Briggs, who retired from his job last month, adding that he has long advocated for increased combat training to teach officers how to disarm people without killing them, including those threatening suicide by cop.

“If that's the training, that's fine,” Briggs said, “but critics within police departments and unions say, 'We don't want our officers to get hurt.'”

The law allows LAPD officers to use lethal force to protect themselves or others from an imminent threat of death or serious injury, and it also allows them to shoot at someone who is armed but not actively attacking them, but only if the officer can demonstrate that the person is likely to seriously injure or kill someone.

Police dispatchers are required to dispatch supervisors to calls about knives, and police rules state officers should give verbal warnings before firing and use only “objectively reasonable” force commensurate with the threat they face. Officers are expected to discuss among themselves how best to approach suspects and designate specific roles to limit the number of guns drawn.

Police officials say police shootings overall are far fewer than in the 1990s, and the majority of mental health-related calls end without the use of force. In 2023, about 93% of patrol officers who respond to emergency calls will have completed a 40-hour training course in mental health intervention, which is now mandatory for all new recruits, according to officials.

Still images from officer body camera footage show a man holding a knife inside the home.

A still image from Los Angeles Police Department body camera footage shows Yong Yang, 40, holding a knife moments before he was killed May 2 at his parents' Koreatown home.

(Los Angeles Police Department)

But knife shootings remain common, raising questions about whether the training is working.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has a long history of shootings by mentally ill individuals using knives or other less dangerous objects.

Two years ago, Lancaster police officers shot and killed a woman who was armed with a knife and threatening to kill herself in her own home after she approached officers at her kitchen table and refused to drop the knife, police said.

In that case, officers entered the home without waiting for a police psychiatric evaluation team, a common practice that supervisors have questioned. Los Angeles County Medical Examiner Max Huntsman believes knife shootings are a “very serious issue” and that “we can make real changes, including funding a real response unit like the Met.” [Mental Evaluation Team].”

The Sheriff's Department said there are 34 MET units operating around the clock throughout the county, plus 10 units dedicated to traffic operations. “Patrol units are sometimes faced with situations where they are unaware of an individual with a mental illness or developmental disability,” the department said in a statement.

LAPD shootings overall have fallen dramatically in recent decades, but several recent incidents have put renewed spotlight on police interactions with the mentally ill and raised concerns among police leaders.

In February, police shot and killed 36-year-old Jason McKerney, who relatives said was having a bipolar episode. After officers shot McKerney with a 40mm round, he began moving toward the officers, after which one officer opened fire at close range, apparently mistaking a plastic fork McKerney was holding for a weapon.

In roughly two-thirds of cases where officers fired both a handgun and a nonlethal weapon at armed individuals — sometimes simultaneously — the officers were reprimanded for poor judgment or ordered to undergo retraining, but the shooting itself was found to be justified in nearly 80 percent of cases, even when authorities concluded that the actions leading up to it violated department policy.

Such was the case in the police shooting of Oscar Sanchez on Jan. 3, 2023. Moore criticized his superiors for not consulting with the mental health unit and instead ordering officers to pursue Sanchez after he kicked down the front door of his apartment. Moore recommended the board find the shooting “no violation of regulations” because officers said they feared the 35-year-old Sanchez would harm others after Tasers and 40mm launchers proved ineffective.

City leaders, even the head of the Los Angeles Police Department, acknowledge that not every mental health emergency requires an armed officer presence. Following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in 2020, Los Angeles became one of several major U.S. cities to commit to developing and investing in a new emergency response program to bring trained professionals to provide help to homeless people and those with mental health and substance abuse issues.

Several pilot crisis response programs have sprung up around the city, but activists have expressed concern about continued underfunding of those programs and other community-led efforts that aren't tied to law enforcement.

Calls about weapons or threats of violence still almost always go to police, and some officials say replacement units aren't available or take too long to respond to emergencies, which they blame on county staffing shortages.

Briggs, the former police chief who recalled waiting an hour and 50 minutes during a police ride-along training session for a smart team to arrive, supports such alternatives but doesn't fully endorse measures that would route all mental-health calls to unarmed clinicians, as a growing number of activists and city leaders have called for.

“You never know what's going to happen in that situation. The person could get killed,” he said.

Times reporter Keri Blackinger contributed to this report.

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