The fatal shooting of a 14-year-old girl when an officer’s bullet ripped through a California department store dressing room wall has raised serious questions about whether he was justified in firing his weapon at a man suspected of attacking a woman with a bicycle lock in the store.
The Los Angeles Police Department unit that was responding to numerous reports of an assault with a deadly weapon and a possible shooting in progress on December 23 was operating under active shooter mode and following police protocols for responding to mass shootings, according to Tom Saggau, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a police union that represents LAPD officers.
The incident at the Burlington store in North Hollywood has sparked outrage as the public and family members of the victim demand answers about why the officer opened fire on the suspect who was not armed with a firearm, ultimately resulting in his death and the death of 14-year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta in her mother’s arms.
The LAPD investigation into the incident is in its early stages, according to Capt. Stacy Spell. The California Attorney General’s Office will independently review the shooting. The incident will also be reviewed by representatives from the California Department of Justice and the Office of the Inspector General, Spell said in late December.
The investigation will likely look at several critical aspects of the incident to determine whether the officer used excessive force, according to experts: What did the officer know as he entered the department store? Did he believe there was an active shooter posing an imminent threat to the public? What did the officer know at the moment he made a split-second decision to open fire?
The LAPD did not respond to these questions after multiple requests from CNN. The department will not release any additional information other than what has been provided in news releases, an LAPD media relations officer said, citing the ongoing investigation.
“Unbeknownst to the officers, a 14-year-old girl was in a changing room behind a wall, that was directly behind the suspect and out of the officers’ view,” the LAPD stated in a news release. “She was in the changing area with her mother when the officers encountered the suspect and the officer-involved shooting occurred.”
The officer who fired the fatal shots is on “paid administrative leave, per department protocols for officer-involved shootings, for at least two weeks,” an LAPD official familiar with the investigation told CNN. The Los Angeles Police Department identified William Dorsey Jones Jr. in late December as the officer who fired the shots that killed Daniel Elena-Lopez, 24, and Valentina.
Since the shooting, Jones has a visible “heaviness on him,” his lawyer, Leslie Wilcox, told The New York Times. Jones has never before been disciplined for a police shooting, and has been surprised by the level of public anger directed at him, “as if Valentina’s death was intentional, or reckless on his part, which it was neither.”
CNN has reached out to Wilcox but has not heard back.
“Deadly force is literally a last effort when they have no other choice – then they are justified in using force,” said Brian Higgins, an adjunct faculty member at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the former chief of the Bergen County Police in New Jersey. Higgins also served as director of public safety for Bergen County.
“But all the information I have right now appears to indicate that the officers believed this individual was armed with a firearm and that he had fired multiple shots,” Higgins added.
“Was the use of the patrol rifle justified?” Anthony Barksdale, a CNN law enforcement analyst and former Baltimore deputy police commissioner, asked last week on CNN. “And … if you’re going to fire a (.223) round inside of a department store, those rounds can easily rip through a body and keep right on moving through drywall. So, the use of force must be looked at.”
The LAPD issued the ammunition and the AR-15 rifle that Jones was using, according to Saggau.
Jones, Saggau said, was responding to the “worst threat that came in” from the 911 calls with a report of an active shooter in the store.
Jones had just completed the LAPD’s mass casualty active shooter training a couple of weeks before the Burlington incident, Saggau said. The training runs through “the exact scenarios that they confronted that day,” he added.
“It is not inaccurate to say that the suspect was unarmed. He did not have a gun, but the officers that responded, including Officer Jones, received conflicting reports,” Saggau said.
As the group of officers entered the store, they clearly moved into a “diamond formation,” which is a typical active shooter-driven response, Saggau said.
“Several people called and said there was somebody assaulting people with a bike lock, but other people phoned and said he had a gun and was shooting,” Saggau added. “If you have one call about an active shooter, it automatically triggers that response.”
What the officer knew at time of shooting is critical, expert says
The LAPD released edited surveillance camera footage and police body camera videos last week showing the events that led to the shooting death of Valentina. The video shows a man, later identified as Lopez, entering the Burlington store with his bike and wearing a tank top and shorts. Lopez takes the escalator upstairs with his bike.
Moments later, he returns to the escalators wearing a multicolored jacket and long pants before swinging his bike lock at customers, according to police. He is seen attacking several female customers.
Several body camera videos released by police show a woman on the floor covered in blood as officers arrive and attempt to find the suspect, who, according to a police statement last month, was a short distance away.
“Officers are trained for the worst-case scenario. A gun shooting in a store is an active shooter scenario – it moves it into that category – so they prepared for that,” Saggau said. “As they entered the store, the officers formed what is called a diamond formation.”
A police officer can be heard on the body camera footage firing three bullets toward the suspect, who later falls to the ground. Video shows the officer firing a rifle at the suspect. The suspect died at the scene. A steel or metal cable lock was found near his body, officials said. No firearm was recovered from the scene.
The assault victim was transported to a hospital with head and arm injuries. Police said they do not believe the woman knew the suspect.
Valentina was in a dressing room with her mother when a bullet aimed at the suspect passed through the wall, fatally striking the teenager. She was killed by a gunshot wound to the chest, coroner records show.
The police department released three 911 calls and radio transmissions relating to the police response.
One call is from a store employee who tells the operator that there’s a “hostile customer in my store attacking customers” and “breaking things.”
While on the phone with the operator, she is repeatedly heard yelling at people to evacuate the store. She tells the operator the suspect is using a bike lock to attack people.
“Did the officers think that the individual was armed with a firearm as they got multiple 911 calls? Was there any other information they received that should have changed their minds?” Higgins said.
The LAPD said in a statement that “while en route to the location, officers received multiple radio calls from the same location that there was a possible shooting in progress and that there were individuals sheltering in place.”
Higgins said that if the officer knew the suspect had only a bicycle lock in his possession and there were no other victims around him, that would solidify his use of force as unjustified.
“They were likely thinking ‘active shooter’ in our current environment and as they move closer, they come across smeared blood on the floor. This was a horrific scene,” Higgins said.
According to Saggau, “What Officer Jones has been trained upon, along with every other law enforcement agency across the country, is that you confront the suspect. You don’t wait anymore.”
In a public statement after the December 23 shooting, LAPD Chief Michel R. Moore said: “My commitment is to conduct a thorough, complete and transparent investigation into the circumstances that led up to this tragedy and provide the family and public with as much information as possible.”
Jones was following LAPD training, union says
According to the LAPD’s use-of-force policy, officers “may use deadly force only when they reasonably believe, based on the totality of circumstances, that such force is necessary in defense of human life.”
The policy also states officers must “use techniques and tools consistent with Department de-escalation training to reduce the intensity of any encounter with a suspect and enable an officer to have additional options to mitigate the need to use a higher level of force while maintaining control of the situation.”
Timothy Williams Jr., a national use-of-force expert and 29-year retired senior detective supervisor for the LAPD, told CNN his analysis of the body camera and surveillance videos showed there was “no imminent threat that was present at that time for lethal force to be used, which resulted in the demise of a 14-year-old who was sequestered in a dressing room between the walls where the shots were being fired.”
In the released body camera video, Jones is heard saying: “Slow down, slow down, let me take point with the rifle,” as he moves to the front of the other officers and leads the group, according to Saggau.
“That tactical communication to slow down allows them to evaluate circumstances and reinforce the focus on the threat,” Saggau said.
Saggau said the LAPD’s training for active shooter situations dictates that the officer with the patrol rifle be “on point” – in front of the other officers – because it’s a more “stable weapon.” When Jones moves to the front, he replaced another officer who had a shotgun, he added.
“The long gun or patrol rifle being on point is there because if an active shooter was taking fire, the officers have to seek cover and the patrol rifle being as long as it is, could inhibit officers seeking cover because of its length,” Saggau said. “Officer Jones followed his training and moved to where he needs to move on point as the training dictates, entering what he believes to be an active shooter circumstance.”
The ongoing threat to the public and a visibly injured woman made it urgent for officers to stop the threat as quickly as possible, Williams said. He added: “Sometimes you can evacuate the area, and sometimes you can’t.”
“Each shot and each incident have to be looked at independent of each other,” Williams said. “You have a store that is full of customers, you have individuals who have been injured via a bike lock and you know where the suspect may be located. When the person is found, there is no imminent threat to the victim on the floor or the officer who has the gun, but he shoots his firearm anyway.”
However, some experts such as Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, contend the suspect was armed with a bicycle lock that could be considered a deadly weapon. Eells said it was tactically correct to get the officer with a patrol rifle to the front and the use of force was statutorily justified because the suspect posed a danger, and potentially deadly threat, to the public.
“The mindset of the responding officers, based upon all the information that’s being shared with them, is that they have a potential active shooter situation taking place there at Burlington,” Eells said.
“In a split second, you’re making that decision as to whether you’re going to pull the trigger. Had bystanders been obviously present, then you would consider and perhaps weigh the benefits versus risk analysis of taking the shot,” he added.
According to Eells, officers in general are trained on “safety priorities,” which, firstly, prioritize innocent people who are in imminent danger of being hurt or killed; secondly, ensure the officer’s safety; and thirdly, ensure the suspect’s safety.
“When officers are taught firearms training, we are taught that in checking our surroundings, one of the things we learn is ‘backstop and beyond,’” Eells said. “Anytime we discharge a firearm in law enforcement, we are responsible for every round that leaves the weapon and where it goes.”
Officers look for a “backstop” such as a wall or another barrier and ensure there is nobody in that vicinity, so if the officer does miss a target, the bullet will strike the backstop, Eells said.
“In a split-second decision, you have no way of knowing if that wall is backed by concrete, if it’s a solid wall, a brick wall, or a half-inch drywall. All you’re looking for is that it’s clear and there is a wall there. That is the best you can do,” he said.
Orellana-Peralta’s father, Juan Pablo Orellana Larenas, who flew to Los Angeles from their native Chile, told reporters his daughter had once assured him the United States was “the safest country in the world.”
In tears, Orellana-Peralta’s mother, Soledad Peralta, described taking cover after hearing screams while shopping for a Christmas dress for the girl.
“We sat down and held each other and prayed,” Peralta said, adding that Valentina fell to the floor after being shot and “died in my arms.”
“I couldn’t do anything. To see a son or daughter die in your arms is one of the greatest and most profoundly painful things you can imagine,” Peralta continued. “Valentina meant to world to me and her family and friends. Now our sweet angel is gone forever. Valentina, give us strength to find justice. My daughter, I love you.”