Shooting of teenager prompts protests

Family members of the wounded teenager, from left, Andrew Bernal, Araceli Alvarez and Joana Bonilla, weep at protest. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times / January 20, 2014)

San Bernardino County sheriff's investigators said Monday that a teenage boy who was shot by a deputy in Highland had charged toward officers wielding a hammer, later telling an officer as he was given medical treatment that he wanted to die.

Sheriff's officials declined to release the teenager's identity because he is a minor, but family members say he is 16-year-old Joshua Alvarez, who remains hospitalized in critical condition.

Officers from the Highland Police Department, which is operated by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, responded Saturday night to a call from someone saying that a family member had a weapon and that others in the home feared for their safety, according to a Sheriff's Department statement.

Family members said later that Joshua was arguing with his older brother.

When deputies arrived, officials said, Joshua was walking away from the home. The deputies told him to stop and repeatedly told him to drop the hammer and a "sharp instrument" he was carrying, according to the statement. He didn't comply and instead moved toward the deputies. One of them opened fire, injuring the teenager.

No deputies were injured.

Joshua was taken to a hospital, where he underwent surgery. Another operation is scheduled Tuesday. Family members said he was shot twice, hit in the abdomen, and doctors are still working to stop his bleeding.

The family is demanding to know what led the officer to fire his gun, rather than subdue the boy by some other method. Alva Alvarez said the teenager didn't have a gun. He was, in her view, a child — a chubby boy who liked to play video games and lie on a trampoline and wear his headphones. And now, she said, he is in an intensive care unit

"We want answers," she said. Joshua is "just a minor, just a kid. He barely turned 16. We love Joshua, and we just want him to be better and to get back in the house with us."

The shooting has prompted vigils and protests. On Monday, dozens of people assembled outside the sheriff's offices in Highland and, later, at the department headquarters in San Bernardino. Demonstrators, joined by family members, chanted and held signs condemning law enforcement and questioning their tactics.

Benjamin Wood, a community organizer with the Pomona Economic Opportunity Center who took part in the demonstration, said the protesters wanted to bring attention to the shooting. Otherwise, he said, cases such as this one "just kind of get swept under the rug."

Protesters, he said, were outraged partly because Joshua was so young but also because the shooting touched a nerve in an immigrant community that has an "underlying resentment" because they feel disenfranchised.

"There was a genuine expression of pain and of outrage," Wood said of the protests.

Family members, even as they push authorities for details, have been camped out at the hospital, waiting for word of improvement in the teenager's condition. Alva Alvarez said the boy's father has slept only a few hours, if that, since the shooting.

She said she has hope that her nephew will pull through, and that what he allegedly told the officer — that he wanted to die — was something said in anger, something he didn't mean.

"He's fighting for his life, and we don't know what's going to happen," she said. "Only God knows."

rick.rojas@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mark Boster contributed to this report.