Ten Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies opened fire early Monday on an SUV they were chasing, discharging 120 rounds in a frenzied crossfire that injured a deputy and the unarmed suspect while sending bullets into nearby homes.
The shooting on a narrow residential street in Compton sent residents diving for cover as bullets zipped over their heads and through their windows. In the aftermath, bullet holes pocked the walls of at least five homes.
Sheriff Lee Baca pledged a full investigation into the incident, which was caught on an amateur’s videotape.
“The aspect of shooting in an urban area is problematic and dangerous under all circumstances,” Baca said. “There’s no such thing as a safe shooting under any conditions.”
Internal affairs investigators are trying to determine whether the gunfire was a case of “contagious fire,” meaning that some deputies incorrectly believed their colleagues’ shots were coming from the suspect, prompting them to open fire.
“There are questions about whether one deputy shooting caused the others to fire,” said Michael Gennaco, head of the sheriff’s Office of Independent Review.
Residents in the Butler Avenue neighborhood off Alondra Boulevard said the deputies put their lives in jeopardy.
“This is crazy, really, really crazy,” said Trina Hays, 42, who dove onto her lawn when the shooting erupted 20 feet away. “They didn’t have any concern for anybody’s life, including their own. That’s why their own police officer got hit.... They could have just sat there and waited it out, but they opened fire.”
The incident began shortly after midnight, when deputies responded to a call of gunfire and were told to look for a white SUV.
Winston Hayes, the suspect, had been driving his white Chevrolet Tahoe around the neighborhood for about four hours, playing music from his stereo as neighbors celebrated Mother’s Day by lounging on their front lawns.
Hayes grew up in the working-class neighborhood, a stretch of modest bungalows where many families have lived for decades. Residents knew him well, and some joked that he was going to run out of gas if he kept driving around.
When deputies arrived, they tried to talk to Hayes. But he sped off, leading deputies on a chase that circled the block several times at speeds up to 35 mph.
Some residents said they believed he was showing off and teasing the officers.
“I saw him and the police going around and around and around, back and forth like a merry-go-round,” said resident Tarae Smith, 41, who went to elementary school with Hayes.
“He’d stop and when it looked like the police were going to get out, he’d take off. He was playing a little cat-and-mouse game with them,” added Terry Moore, 48, Smith’s sister.
As the chase continued, some residents screamed at the officers not to shoot him.
Deputies eventually threw down a spike strip, hoping that he would run over it and puncture his tires. But the chase came to an abrupt halt before Hayes reached the strip.
Deputies used their patrol cars to block Hayes not far from where the chase began.
With nowhere else to go, Hayes swerved onto Moore’s lawn and headed for her home, authorities said. Moore said she was horrified to see the headlights looming in her front window.
“It really spooked me, because when he came up in the grass I thought he was going to come up all the way into the house,” Moore said.
At that point, Hayes stopped and backed into the street, toward three officers, authorities said. The officers begin firing, hitting the vehicle repeatedly. In the videotape, a deputy can be heard shouting: “Watch your crossfire! Watch your crossfire!”
Moore, who had run into her home when she saw officers draw their weapons, huddled on the floor of a back room with her daughter, sister and niece. Moore’s sister, Smith, said she was scared that Hayes would try to seek refuge in their home.
“I was terrified. We were on top of one another and I was praying and hoping he wouldn’t come in here,” Smith said.
About 100 yards down the street, resident Pedro Mendez said he had stepped to his bedroom window when he heard the sirens, then saw the gunfire begin.
Two bullets smashed into the window over his head, through his bedroom, a closet door and a back wall before burying themselves in a kitchen cupboard
“The bullets almost grazed my head,” Mendez said, adding that glass from the window landed on his scalp. “They passed like one inch above my head.”
Mendez yelled to his wife and her 14-year-old daughter to take cover.
Authorities said that the deputies fired at least 120 rounds, and videotape shows them pumping rounds at Hayes’ vehicle in two sustained volleys. During the second volley, Hayes’ vehicle rolls slowly into a police cruiser as bullets shatter the upper windshield.
Hayes was struck four times, in the toe, finger and shoulder. He was listed in stable condition at Torrance Harbor General Hospital on Monday afternoon.
A deputy, Edward Clark, was struck in the upper part of his protective vest during the crossfire. Clark’s injuries were not serious, officials said. A second deputy tripped and fell during the gunfire, and his colleagues may have assumed he had been brought down by gunfire, sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said.
Baca said deputies can use deadly force when they believe their lives or the lives of bystanders are in jeopardy. He said he would not speak to what was in the minds of deputies but noted they were responding to a call that they believed was “gang-related gunfire.”
Authorities said they have no evidence that Hayes was involved in the shooting that brought officers to the area except that he was driving a similar vehicle to one possibly involved in that incident.
Whitmore said that Hayes told deputies after his arrest that he was high on drugs. (The 44-year-old handyman has prior convictions for resisting arrest, battery, public drunkenness and reckless driving, according to court documents.)
Baca said it is difficult to put oneself in the position of officers at the scene.
“It would certainly appear that there may be some control issues, but the reality is that when the shooters are shooting, they’re not hearing the other people shooting,” the sheriff said. “I think there was this intensity level that was evolving here.”
Baca said one issue that investigators will examine is whether the amount of gunfire was excessive.
“We have to ask ourselves why did 10 people shoot their weapons as opposed to five,” he said.
The sheriff said he would also consider possible changes to the department’s pursuit policy depending on the outcome of the investigation, although he doesn’t believe any changes would be needed. The Los Angeles Police Department in recent months has tightened its policy on officers firing at pursuit vehicles after two fatal shootings.
Some residents say it’s a miracle that the bullets did not hit bystanders.
Doris Bradford, 73, said her home was one of those hit by the gunfire.
Like many in the neighborhood, she said she was angry at the deputies for unleashing such deadly force in front of her home. As she spoke, a bullet remained embedded in a wall behind her china cabinet.
“The bullet could have come straight through, and if it did, it would have come straight through my bedroom,” Bradford said. “They should be more careful when they do stuff like that. They could kill an innocent person.”
Times staff writers Nick Shields, Susana Enriquez, Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.