Suit filed over shooting of mentally ill man by L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies

Police carLos Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies are accused of shooting a mentally ill teenager in the street in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court just two weeks after the county settled a 2009 shooting case for $8.85 million.

The lawsuit also comes on the heels of an agreement by the department to release deputy-involved shooting records to the county’s Office of Inspector General.

The lawsuit claims Fernando Escobedo, 19, was shot and killed by deputies on Nov. 30, 2014.  Escobedo was known to the department through past brushes with the law. Shortly before his death, his mother had sought help from the Sheriff’s Department and explained his mental health problems, the complaint says.

A video of the shooting obtained by CalWatchdog appears to show Escobedo running from the home of his mother, Hilda Alvarez, away from two squad cars parked in front of the home and into the path of two other arriving squad cars.

An officer comes out of the last car and points his weapon at Escobedo, who turns and runs away before dropping to the ground. The video is embedded at the bottom of the page. 

From the complaint:

“Ms. Alvarez immediately heard three gunshots and yelled ‘don’t shoot.’ One of the officers then hollered ‘watch your crossfire.’ Immediately thereafter, four more shots were fired at Mr. Escobedo.”

Deputies told local media at the time of the incident that Escobedo charged an officer with a steak knife, which the family disputes. The video does not show the victim charging any of the officers.

The Sheriff’s office did not respond to emails and calls for comment.

The shooting is classified in the department’s database as a “hit shooting incident,” one of three in the month of November 2014. The shooter, unnamed in the lawsuit, was a 50-year-old Hispanic deputy who had been on the force for eight years according to Sheriff’s Department records

The records indicate that Escobedo’s alleged weapon was recovered. They also indicate Escobedo was under the influence and had a criminal history. Records show Escobedo was arrested in July 2014 and charged with possessing stolen property.

The “hit shooting incident” designation does not indicate a fatality. Since 2010, the department has recorded 175 hit shootings, and 91 of them resulted in a fatality, a review of records shows.

In about half of all shooting incidents involving L.A. County deputies since 2010, the suspect had a criminal history.

California counties have worked to open their records in the months since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot in an altercation with a police officer outside St. Louis in 2014.

The San Diego County District Attorney’s office now lists the shootings it reviews. In Kern County, law enforcement and the district attorney’s office hammered out an agreement in July for enhanced review of officer-involved shootings. L.A. County has a database with all deputy-involved shootings. 

In the city of Richmond, a new police chief initiated policies to reduce police shootings, including reviews of all uses of force and providing officers with Tasers and pepper spray to be used as an alternative to a firearm.

California’s law enforcement community has been embroiled in controversies over excessive force, including shootings, for decades.

The violence reached a flash point in the late 90s. A gang unit in the Rampart division of the Los Angeles Police Department was plagued by beatings of suspects and officer-involved shootings.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, in particular, has in the past five years battled with rogue officers.

Three deputies were found guilty in June, 2011 of the beating of a jailhouse visitor. In November, the department paid $8.85 million to the family of Alfredo Montalvo, who was shot by deputies after a brief car chase in 2009.

In October, 2015, a man suspected of driving under the influence was shot. Deputies claimed he began to drive toward them after being pursued and cornered by squad cars. The deceased had no criminal history, according to records.

Since 2009, Los Angeles County has paid out $22 million in 43 wrongful death lawsuits as of July.

The Escobedo complaint alleges that the shooters were not properly trained in dealing with the mentally ill.

“The department fails, refuses and neglects to keep a centralized database of those reported to it as suspected of being mentally ill,” the lawsuit claims. “Neither [past sheriff John] Scott nor [current sheriff Jim] McDonnell provided training necessary for officers faced with the challenge of bringing such people safely under the custody and control of patrol officers, thus placing the mentally ill … at greater risk of death at the time of arrest or when officers seek to question them.”

Norm Pattis, the Connecticut-based lawyer handling the lawsuit for Escobedo’s mother, did not return calls or emails.

Legislation passed in September requires law enforcement officers in California to get more training in handling mental health cases.

The bill requires the state provide at least 15 hours of basic training in dealing with the mentally ill, up from six hours.

Video of Nov. 30, 2014 shooting of Fernando Escobedo:

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