The 3-year-old son of a Los Angeles police officer got hold of his father's service handgun Tuesday and shot him as they sat in the family's pickup at a traffic light near their home in Anaheim, police said.
The boy, who was in the back seat, fired a single round into 35-year-old Enrique Chavez's upper back, and the bullet went out through the officer's chest, police said. Still stopped at the light, Chavez passed his terrified son, Colin, to a stranger at a bus stop nearby and asked for help.
Paramedics rushed Chavez to UCI Medical Center in Orange, where doctors listed him in critical condition.
Los Angeles Police Department sources said there is a threat of paralysis from the injury to the 10-year veteran officer.
Capt. Bill Murphy, one of Chavez's commanding officers, said the bullet hit several vital areas.
"It is a terrible tragedy," Police Chief William J. Bratton said after visiting the family at the hospital. "It is a reminder to anyone that has a firearm that you have to be conscious about keeping that firearm secure and keeping it away from children."
Department spokesman Lt. Paul Vernon said officers are allowed to carry their guns during off hours but with the mandate that they "maintain control of their weapon at all times."
The boy was not wearing a child restraint, according to Anaheim Police Sgt. Tim Schmidt. Investigators were unable to say where he took the 9-millimeter gun from or whether it was locked up.
Chavez was also carrying a backup weapon in the truck, but Schmidt would not say where it was stored or what kind of weapon it was.
It is a crime in California if a child finds a loaded gun in a place one controls and shoots someone with it. The law is in the state's basic training manual for police.
The law also requires children riding in a car to be placed in safety seats until they are 6 years old or weigh 60 pounds.
Anaheim police began a criminal investigation into the shooting that will determine whether those laws were broken.
Schmidt said the department had not yet learned whether the bullet flew out of the truck during the 11:45 a.m. shooting at La Palma Avenue and Harbor Boulevard. The adjacent La Palma Park was filled with children playing and people eating their lunches on benches.
The LAPD will also conduct a review to determine whether policies were violated, Vernon said.
Chavez patrolled one of the department's toughest divisions, Newton, which includes a portion of South Los Angeles between downtown and Florence Avenue. He had recently returned to street patrol after an assignment to the gang unit.
Anaheim Police Sgt. Rick Martinez, a department spokesman, said most police officers carry their guns off duty.
Officers said LAPD personnel generally pursue two approaches to gun safety at home.
One group tells their children about the danger a gun poses but says the parent has to carry it. These officers tells the child that if for some reason the parent leaves the weapon in the open, the youngster should not touch it and should tell an adult immediately.
Other officers immediately secure their guns in a lock box when they return home.
Nevertheless, Chavez is the third Los Angeles area police officer to be shot by a relative with his or her service weapon in recent weeks.
On Monday, Pasadena police said Officer Karen White, contrary to initial reports, did not attempt suicide in Compton last month when she was shot in the face but was wounded when she tried to wrestle her gun from her suicidal 18-year-old son.
White, a 10-year department veteran, spoke to investigators about the incident for the first time Friday. The same day, her son admitted the accidental shooting last month and turned himself in to sheriff's investigators in Compton.
On July 2, LAPD Officer Ronald Cade was shot and wounded off duty with his service weapon by Yolanda Cade, his wife of two weeks. She had seen a text message on his phone that he had sent to someone else, according to the district attorney's office.
Ronald Cade is the subject of in internal affairs investigation in connection with the shooting. His wife has been charged with three counts of attempted murder.
Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy and H.G. Reza contributed to this report.