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A routine traffic stop ends with Whittier police in 'a gunfight for their lives,' leaving one veteran officer dead

It began as a routine police call to a rear-end collision, the sort of traffic accident that happens every day in Southern California. 

It ended in tragedy, with one Whittier police officer dead and another wounded. 

The officers didn’t know when they approached the accident scene about 8 a.m. Monday that one of the drivers — a 26-year-old man released on parole less than two weeks ago — was in a stolen car and suspected of killing another man hours earlier in East Los Angeles, authorities said.

As the man got out of the silver car and officers moved to pat him down, he pulled a semiautomatic handgun from his waistband and shot them at close range.

The officers, both wearing bulletproof vests, returned fire. But Keith Boyer, 53, a 27-year department veteran, was killed. Patrick Hazell, a young officer hired three years ago, was wounded and hospitalized in stable condition.

Whittier Police Chief Jeff Piper broke down in tears as he paid tribute to Boyer, who became the first officer from the department to be killed in the line of duty in 37 years. Piper said Boyer was a close friend and beloved officer who was close to retirement.

“He was the best of the best,” Piper said.

Alongside the outpouring of grief, however, was a display of anger, as Piper and other law enforcement officials blamed the slaying on new laws designed to reduce incarcerations in California.

“We need to wake up. Enough is enough,” Piper said. “This is a senseless, senseless tragedy that did not need to be.”

Police said the suspect, whose name has not been made public, was released from custody early, but they did not provide details on his criminal history or why he was released.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell pointed to three measures enacted in the last seven years — Propositions 47 and 57, and Assembly Bill 109 — that he said have led to the release of too many criminals without creating a proper safety net of mental health, drug rehabilitation and other services.

“We’re putting people back on the street that aren’t ready to be back on the street,” McDonnell said. He said the county jail system he runs, the largest in the nation, has become a “default state prison.”

Sheriff’s officials have long criticized Proposition 47, which was approved by voters in 2014 and downgraded some drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. They say AB 109 — which moved state prisoners to local lockups — has pushed lower-level offenders out of custody and onto the streets, giving them little deterrent against committing new crimes. Proposition  57, which passed last year, seeks to reduce the prison population by authorizing parole for more offenders.   

Authorities described the suspect in Monday’s shooting as a known Los Angeles gang member. Hours before his run-in with Whittier police, he is suspected of fatally shooting his 46-year-old cousin and stealing his car in East Los Angeles. The slain man was identified as Roy Torres, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida said.

After the suspect collided with a vehicle near Colima Road and Mar Vista Street, he asked the other driver for help pushing his car off to the side of the road. The suspect then asked for a ride from the people whose vehicle he hit, but they refused, wary of a man with tattoos on his neck and face.

When three officers arrived at the accident scene, they believed they were helping an injured motorist. Instead, McDonnell said, “they end up in a gunfight for their lives.”

Police did not release many details of the firefight, but a police vehicle was seen with its windows shot out.

Boyer and Hazell were taken to UC Irvine Medical Center, where Boyer was pronounced dead.

The suspect was taken to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. His condition is unknown, but he’s expected to survive.

Piper said he and others were devastated by the death of Boyer, who was known for his friendly disposition and willingness to lend help and advice.

He leaves behind two adult sons, according to the department.

Boyer joined the department in 1989 as a jailer and dispatcher before becoming an officer in 1990.

One of his pastimes was performing as a drummer with Mrs. Jones’ Revenge, a classic-rock tribute band in Temecula that played at wineries and weddings.

Band leader Jeff McNeal said drumming “was probably a nice release for him, with the kind of high-stress work he does.”

Boyer’s skills “elevated” the band, said McNeal, 57, calling him “probably the easiest guy in the whole band. Always willing to play. He loved the music. It was his passion.”

Monday’s shooting marked the third time a Whittier police officer had been slain in the line of duty in the department’s 100-year history.  The Police Department has about 128 sworn officers who patrol the cities of Whittier and Santa Fe Springs in southeastern Los Angeles County. 

“This is a very sad day for our officers, the families involved, the Whittier Police Department and our community,” said Mayor Joe Vinatieri. “But we’re pulling together. And we're going to take care of these families, and we're going to take care of this police department.”

A procession of police vehicles traveled from UC Irvine Medical Center, accompanying Boyer’s body to the Orange County coroner’s office. Their cars were greeted by law enforcement officers and firefighters who saluted as the vehicles drove by, some wiping away tears.

In the evening, the city held a vigil outside the Whittier Police Department. A crowd of about 1,000 police officers and other mourners overflowed onto the sidewalks of the civic center, standing silently and holding candles while an enormous American flag hung from a firetruck. A framed photo of Boyer was placed in front of the memorial for the two other Whittier officers killed decades ago.

tony.barboza@latimes.com | Twitter: @tonybarboza

richard.winton@latimes.com | Twitter: @LAcrimes

Times staff writers Maya Lau and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

8:25 p.m.: This article was updated to identify the man shot and killed early Monday in East Los Angeles.

This article was first posted at 7:55 p.m.

An earlier version of this story said that Prop. 57 changed the state's "three strikes" law. It did not change the law.
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