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Family of woman fatally shot by LAPD in Van Nuys hostage case files claim against the city

Family of woman fatally shot by LAPD in Van Nuys hostage case files claim against the city
Family photo of Elizabeth Michele Tollison provided by The Cochran law firm. Tollison was fatally shot by police during a hostage situation involving a stabbing suspect in Van Nuys. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The family of a woman fatally shot by Los Angeles police during a standoff with a man who held a knife to her throat outside a Van Nuys homeless outreach center has filed a wrongful death claim against the city, alleging that officers failed to take appropriate steps to defuse the incident before firing 18 rounds at the suspect.

“This is a fast-moving situation because they turned it into a fast-moving situation,” Brian Dunn, an attorney for the family of Elizabeth Tollison, said of police officers’ actions during a news conference Wednesday.

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The wrongful death claim comes a day after police released a dramatic video recording of the June 16 incident and announced changes in tactics and weaponry intended to reduce the odds of endangering the life of an innocent civilian. Several weeks after the Van Nuys shooting, a store manager was shot and killed by an LAPD officer exchanging gunfire with a suspect at a Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake. Previously, the LAPD had gone 13 years without killing a hostage or bystander.

Tollison, 49, was standing outside the homeless center located at Central Lutheran Church in the 6400 block of Tyrone Avenue when police confronted Guillermo Perez, 32, who grabbed her and held a knife to her throat. Three officers opened fire with their handguns. Perez died at the scene, and Tollison was taken to a hospital, where she died two days later.

Officers were originally called to the church after reports that a man in a maroon top and camouflage shorts had stabbed a woman, whom police identified as Perez’s ex-girlfriend. The woman, who was not named, suffered cuts on her hand.

Dunn said officers should have recognized that Perez was “not in his right mind” before drawing weapons and screaming at him to drop the knife. They could have communicated with him to temper the incident before he approached Tollison, he said.

Nick Ramirez, left, and Jesse Pelaez, right, sons of Elizabeth Michele Tollison, who was fatally shot by police during a hostage situation involving a stabbing suspect in Van Nuys, meet with attorneys Megan R. Gyongyos and Brian T. Dunn.
Nick Ramirez, left, and Jesse Pelaez, right, sons of Elizabeth Michele Tollison, who was fatally shot by police during a hostage situation involving a stabbing suspect in Van Nuys, meet with attorneys Megan R. Gyongyos and Brian T. Dunn. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

“He didn’t lapse into this very provocative act until — with guns drawn, voices raised, conflicting commands given — they closed the distance on him,” Dunn said.

In the video, officers yell repeatedly at Perez to put the knife down, before firing bean bags at him. Perez holds up a metal chair as a shield, then moves back toward Tollison, who had been standing against a wall with her walker during the confrontation. Perez wraps his arms around Tollison and presses the knife against her throat with both hands. The officers begin shooting, and both Perez and Tollison fall to the ground.

A blood-covered knife was found near Perez’s body.

“Tragically, this was another case where officers were forced to make split-second decisions based on the actions of a violent individual,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore said, calling the shooting “every officer’s worst nightmare.”

At a news conference Tuesday, Moore said he was ordering new tactical training for officers and would equip them with less-lethal weapons that have a longer range and more power than the bean bags.

A spokesman for the department declined to comment on the family’s claim.

One of Tollison’s sons, Jesse Pelaez, said that when he visited his mother in the hospital before she died, a doctor told him that the knife wound to her throat inflicted by Perez was “not life-threatening.” Pelaez, dressed in black, had tears in his eyes as his attorney spoke to the media.

“It hurts me so much knowing I’ll never be able to see or talk to my mother again because the police didn’t know how to handle a situation properly,” Pelaez said. “I hope the police get stricter on their training and protocol so this doesn’t happen to anyone else and anyone else’s family.”

7:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information from the news conference and edited for clarity.

This article was originally published at 1:30 p.m.

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