A Los Angeles police shooting of a teenager this week has once again stoked law enforcement concerns about realistic-looking toy weapons, which have been part of fatal police clashes around the country and prompted calls for legislative action in California.
Fifteen-year-old Jamar Nicholson was shot in the back early Tuesday morning while standing next to a person who was holding a replica weapon, police have said. He was unarmed.
During an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jamar displayed a bandage across the upper right side of his back, showing where he was shot by an officer Tuesday morning.
The bullet remains lodged in his back, and narrowly missed his spine. Jamar knew his friend was carrying an airsoft gun, but had no idea whether his friend was pointing it in his direction, he said. The boys were walking their normal route to school, when he heard someone yell, “Freeze!”
Seconds later, he was shot.
Jamar said he didn’t even realize he’d been wounded until he’d fallen to the ground. An ambulance arrived 15 to 20 minutes later. He was hauled onto an gurney, handcuffed and then rushed to the hospital. Nicholson said his cuffs weren’t unlocked until his release, when a detective approached him.
Accoding to Jamar, the detective told him there had been a mistake and acknowledged Jamar had not committed any crime.
An LAPD captain apologized to Jamar’s mother, but the teen said he wants to hear that directly from the officer who shot him.
“I don’t want to see him again… but I do want that sorry,” he said.
Nearby residents who said they heard the gunshots told The Times that they did not hear officers issue a warning to drop a weapon. The department said multiple warnings were given before the shooting.
The weapon turned out to be a replica firearm, according to L.A. police spokesman Cmdr. Andrew Smith. The boy was taken to a hospital and released after treatment.
"It’s certainly an unfortunate situation," Smith said. "But because of people bringing replica weapons out like that, it certainly could have been a terrible tragedy."
The officers involved, identified only as detectives with the Criminal Gang Homicide Bureau, were on their way to another investigation Tuesday morning when they glanced down an alley near 10th and Florence avenues and saw a group of young men. One was pointing a gun toward another.
The officers ordered the person to drop the gun and opened fire when he didn’t comply, Cmdr. Smith said. The teen holding the replica weapon was not hit, but Jamar, who was standing next to him, was struck.
The officers detained everyone present and concluded the group were friends. "No animus" was involved, according to Smith.
Jamar and two of the other students involved in the incident attend class at nearby Alliance Renee and Meyer Luskin Academy High School, according to Chalio Medrano, the school principal.
Medrano said the boy who was carrying the replica weapon, which he described as a BB gun, was not a student at Meyer Luskin. Medrano said the boys hardly ever missed class and described them as “typical teenagers.”
Capt. Peter Whittingham, commander of the Criminal Gang Homicide Unit where the officers work, said the officer was only attempting to save a life and scoffed at comparisons to other police shootings that have roiled communities across the country.
“In trying to save a life here, unfortunately the officer shot a youth.… I am very happy, as is the officer, that this wasn’t life-threatening,” said Whittingham, who has been critical of the department in the past. “I don’t want this compared to other shootings of young black men. This is not that situation here.”
Whittingham said three of the teenagers were African American and the fourth was Latino. He said the boy who was holding the replica gun turned toward the officer seconds before he opened fire.
“At that point, he turned toward the officer pointing the gun and now, in defense of his own life, feeling threatened, the officer fired,” Whittingham said.
During an afternoon news conference, Smith displayed the replica weapon, pointing to what he described as a “very small” orange tip on the end of the barrel.
Smith said the officers were nearly 20 feet away from the teens at the time of the shooting, and questioned whether the officers could have truly known the weapon was fake at that distance.
Neighbors said they often saw teens during mornings in the alleyway near 10th and Florence, dressed in their school uniforms and khaki pants.
"They don't cause any trouble," said Colliene Carter. "They're just innocent kids."
But Tuesday morning was different. Carter was doing her hair around 7:40 a.m. when she heard gunshots. Carter ran as fast as she could to her neighbor's downstairs to tell them what she'd heard.
Her neighbor, Cynthia Rhodes, was getting her girls ready for school.
"I heard a sound like an 18-wheeler jackknifing," Rhodes said. "When she told me, I said, 'What are you talking about? Who shot who?'"
Officers quickly swarmed the area, she said, and helicopters buzzed above the apartments, according to Rhodes.
Replica guns have played a part in other officer-involved shootings across the country.
In Cleveland last year, a rookie police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was holding a fake gun in a park, generating nationwide protests.
In 2010, three boys were playing with a BB gun on North Verdugo Road in Glassell Park in Los Angeles when two officers stopped to investigate. An officer opened fire, believing the weapon was real.
The boy, Rohayent Gomez, was shot in the chest and paralyzed as a result of his injuries. The shooting led to an excessive-force lawsuit, and a Los Angeles jury handed down a $24-million verdict against the department in 2012, believed to be the largest sanction ever against the LAPD for a single incident.
After the shooting, Chief Charlie Beck called for new laws that would require makers of replica and BB guns to make them with bright colors that distinguish them from real guns.
After Tuesday's shooting, Smith said: "Don't let your children carry these guns, especially don't let them play with them outside. We could have had a fatal tragedy here. If an officer sees a gun and it looks real and the person who is holding it does not drop it, there is a realistic chance [the officer] will shoot."
California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in September that prohibited the manufacture and sale of imitation airsoft guns that fire BBs or pellets unless they have fluorescent colors on the trigger guard and a fluorescent adhesive band on the gun. The law does not go into effect until 2016.
State Sen. Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles), who wrote the bill, agreed to the delay “to give manufacturers time to comply with state law,” said Claire Conlon, a spokeswoman for the senator. “If it were to go into effect on the standard effective date of bills, manufacturers would only have had three months to change their operations in order to still make the toy guns and comply with the law.”
De León said at the time that he introduced the bill in response to shootings, including one in 2013 that resulted in the death of a 13-year-old boy in Santa Rosa who was carrying an airsoft gun that was a replica of an AK-47 assault weapon.
"Law enforcement officers have extreme difficulty distinguishing between the real thing and what is fake," De Leon said at the time his bill was approved by the Legislature.
The measure was supported by the city of Los Angeles and Chief Beck. On Thursday, Beck said he was reviewing this week's incident and wanted to examine the gun to see how real it looked.
The person holding the replica weapon could potentially face charges of brandishing a replica weapon in the presence of a police officer, but investigators were still discussing that option with prosecutors, Smith said.
The names of the officers involved are expected to be released after the department’s initial 72-hour briefing. While the shooting occurred Tuesday morning, it took the LAPD more than a day to acknowledge that an officer had shot the 15-year-old in the back after he saw a person next to the teen pointing what the officer thought was a real weapon.
Department officials had initially described the South Los Angeles encounter as involving a gunman who was eventually taken into custody. Smith said the delay in the release of information was not intentional.
“What we try to do is give as much accurate information as we can. Unfortunately when our (media) officers roll out, it is an infancy of the investigation. People haven’t been interviewed, weapons have not been touched, nothing has been examined,” he said. “It is very difficult to get accurate information so that explains the delay.”
Ed Obayashi, a deputy sheriff and legal advisor for Inyo County who is an expert on use-of-force incidents, said the shooting illustrated the immense danger of children carrying realistic-looking weapons in public.
“This is an all-too-common scenario across the country with kids carrying the replica guns despite all that their parents have told them. These are accidents waiting to happen," he said. “This is truly an accident based on the initial information and we are seeing too many of these as kids want to act out video games.”
The location of the incident, a narrow corridor populated by several young men, also likely made the officers more tense. Obayashi said the teens may not have been aware officers were shouting at them or were so shocked by the sight of police with guns that they simply didn’t know how to react to their commands.
“These teens may not be conscious of officers yelling at them. There is sometimes a moment of hesitation,” Obayashi said. “Psychologically, it is not uncommon for young people to be overwhelmed and freeze, and then a tragedy occurs.”
Times staff writers Kate Mather, James Queally, Patrick McGreevy, Veronica Rocha and Matt Hamilton contributed to this report.