The Los Angeles County sheriff's new inspector general will be closely involved with investigations into why a Pico Rivera man was mistakenly killed by a deputy during a gunfight with a parolee, the second deputy-involved killing of a hostage in four months.
Frank Mendoza, 54, was mistaken for the armed suspect who was running from deputies and had broken into the Mendoza home late Friday afternoon when he was shot, authorities said. The gunman, 24-year-old Cedric Ramirez, took Mendoza's wife hostage and held her until a tactical team entered the house and fatally shot him. The woman was unharmed.
Max Huntsman, the top civilian monitor in the Sheriff's Department, said his office will be closely involved with internal investigations underway by the department, the district attorney and the coroner.
Huntsman said although the inspector general cannot conduct an independent investigation, his office will review the sheriff's inquiries to "make sure they are done in a correct way." If better training or changes in field tactics are necessary, his office will follow up with recommended changes, Huntsman said.
"We have to come up with the best possible tools for them to have a better outcome,'' said Huntsman, a veteran prosecutor appointed to the newly created inspector general post in November. "It's a very difficult thing to do. We have tragic outcomes when people are being pushed to their limits and have seconds to react."
Sheriff's officials said they were hoping to arrest Ramirez around 5 p.m. Friday on parole violations when he fled, exchanging gunfire with deputies before breaking into the Mendoza home in the 9000 block of Rose Hedge Drive.
As deputies rushed through the front door and began evacuating the home's residents, Mendoza appeared in the doorway and a deputy shot him twice, mistaking him for the fleeing suspect, sheriff's officials said at a Saturday press conference.
Ramirez held Mendoza's 60-year-old wife hostage for more than eight hours before he was killed.
It's the second time a sheriff's deputy has mistakenly killed a victim during an unfolding hostage situation. In April, deputies mistakenly fired on two hostages, killing one, as they fled a knife-wielding captor in West Hollywood.
John Winkler, a TV production assistant, was hit in the chest when three deputies fired on him as he and another hostage rushed out of an apartment unit where they were being held. A second hostage was shot in the leg but survived.
In that case, a sheriff's official said Winkler fit the general description of the suspect as he ran out of the apartment. When deputies realized that a fight was still taking place inside the unit, they ran in and subdued the suspect, who was attacking a third man.
In the West Hollywood shooting, the suspect, 27-year-old Alexander McDonald, and Winkler, 30, were close in age and build. In the Pico Rivera incident, the suspect was 30 years younger than the man killed by the sheriff's deputy, who was not identified.
Huntsman said when events are unfolding quickly, it can be "hard to assess these differences." His agency will be weighing all factors, including what deputies were thinking at the time of the shooting, he said.
"When to shoot and when not to shoot?" Huntsman said. "When to go in and when to wait? We were already looking at these questions, and we will definitely look again."
The inspector general's post was created in November by the Board of Supervisors in response to public concerns about deputy violence in the county's jail system. On Tuesday, the supervisors will discuss whether to also create a citizen's oversight commission of the Sheriff's Department.
Huntsman said the Pico Rivera and Hollywood shooting incidents point out the need for his agency to be given authority to review all records related to deputy-involved shootings. Sheriff John L. Scott has resisted allowing his office to review personnel files of deputies, citing legal concerns, Huntsman said.
But access to personnel records are often key in fully assessing a field event, he said. "It's important to keep a lot of that information confidential. But that doesn't mean no one should see it."