Questionable tactics by deputies in Andres Guardado killing put pressure on sheriff
Andres Guardado had surrendered and was lying facedown on the ground when a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who had been chasing him down a driveway holstered his weapon and approached the 18-year-old to put him in handcuffs, the deputy would recount.
Suddenly, according to this account, Guardado reached for the gun he’d moments before agreed to drop, which was still on the ground above his right hand, prompting the deputy to redraw his weapon. The deputy fired six rounds, five of which struck the teenager in the back, killing him.
The narrative of Deputy Miguel Vega, provided to The Times through his attorney, raises fresh questions about the tactics used during yet another deadly police encounter that has garnered national attention and prompted large demonstrations by activists and Guardado’s relatives, who called the shooting unjustified.
Experts questioned several aspects of the incident, including what kind of cover Vega had from his partner and why Vega didn’t first secure the weapon or order Guardado to move away from it.
“If that individual is able to reach for the gun, why are you holstering your weapon? Unless your cover officer is there in a position to protect you,” said Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County deputy sheriff and national expert in use of force. “That is officer safety 101.”
Law enforcement tactics, especially the use of deadly force, are under intense scrutiny after a string of high-profile killings at the hands of police, including the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, who was pinned to the ground by his neck in an episode that has sparked nationwide unrest. Lawmakers are increasingly proposing measures to limit when police can use deadly force.
Some police agencies have also been trying to hold officers more accountable for their actions when using force, including questioning whether unsound tactics contributed to the violence. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, now evaluates officers on whether they could have resolved an encounter without firing their weapons.
In California, Assembly Bill 392 created what some described as one of the toughest standards in the nation for when law enforcement officers can kill, requiring that deadly force be used only when “necessary,” instead of when “reasonable.” The law — pushed in the wake of the 2018 police shooting death of Stephon Clark — also prohibits police from firing on fleeing felons who don’t pose an immediate danger, an update from California’s original code, which dates back to 1872.
Clark was shot at 20 times by two Sacramento police officers who said he was holding what they thought was a firearm. Only a cellphone was found at the scene.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva did not respond to questions about whether the deputies’ tactics in the Guardado case conformed to department standards.
Adam L. Marangell, an attorney representing Vega, said an analysis of his client’s tactics is best reserved for the administrative investigation conducted by the department’s internal affairs bureau after the homicide investigation concludes. Vega is scheduled to provide an interview to investigators on Monday, he said.
“I do believe Deputy Vega acted in accordance with policy and in the safest possible manner given the dynamic situation he faced,” Marangell said.
Disregarding a “security hold” invoked by the Sheriff’s Department, the coroner’s office Friday released Guardado’s autopsy report, confirming that the 18-year-old was shot five times in the back. Attorneys for the Guardado family earlier this week released the results of an independent autopsy that drew the same conclusion.
“I have given careful consideration to the major variables in this case — supporting the administration of justice, as well as the public’s right to know,” Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas said in a statement. “I do not believe that these are mutually exclusive ideals. Both are important, particularly amid the ongoing national discussion about race, policing and civil rights. I believe that government can do its part by being more timely and more transparent in sharing information that the public demands and has a right to see.”
Villanueva blasted the disclosure, saying it has “the potential to jeopardize the investigation, the filing of the case and any possible future criminal or administrative proceedings” and would force the Sheriff’s Department to use court orders to enforce security holds that exist to prevent tainting witness interviews.
“Dr. Lucas has acknowledged succumbing to pressure from the Board of Supervisors and the Office of Inspector General and has now made the astonishing admission that he sacrificed the integrity of the investigation in a bid to satisfy public curiosity,” Villanueva said in a statement.
The encounter began just before 6 p.m. on June 18, when Vega and his partner, Christopher Hernandez, saw Guardado speaking to someone in a car blocking the entrance to an auto body shop on West Redondo Beach Boulevard, the Sheriff’s Department has said.
Investigators said Guardado looked toward the deputies, “produced a handgun” and ran away. The deputies gave chase, and when they caught up, Vega fired.
Tom Yu, an attorney representing Hernandez, said his client saw a gun in Guardado’s waistband and, at some point during the chase, the 18-year-old pulled it out. Yu said his client saw Guardado turn a corner and begin to lie on the ground, when the deputy heard Vega order Guardado to drop the gun. Then Hernandez heard gunfire, Yu said.
At that point, Hernandez had only a partial view of Guardado, Yu said.
Yu said Friday that it was unfair for experts “to second-guess what these deputies were doing in a split-second-decision situation.”
Marangell said Vega gave multiple commands to Guardado to stop during the chase, during which Guardado pulled out the gun. He said Guardado then obeyed commands to stop, turned around and raised both hands, while still armed.
Guardado was ordered to place the firearm on the ground, which he did, Marangell said. Guardado then positioned himself facedown on the ground, but the gun was near his right hand, Marangell said.
As Vega approached with his weapon holstered, he told Guardado: “Don’t reach for the gun,” Marangell said. That’s when Guardado tried to grab the gun, he said.
Obayashi said shooting someone in the back or using bad tactics does not necessarily mean the force was unjustified. A suspect could be running away while firing at officers behind him, or could have been spun around by the impact of the gunfire in the middle of a shooting.
“In this case, the deputy fired ... his weapon knowing that he was aiming at the subject’s back,” Obayashi said. “That is unusual.”
“There’s going to be a lot of questions, based on what I’m reading, on tactics,” he added. “Did it have to wind up this way?”
Sid Heal, a former L.A. County Sheriff’s Department commander and chairman of strategy and development for the National Tactical Officers Assn., said he was troubled by Vega’s description of Guardado’s behavior in the seconds before his death.
“Up until now, everything you’ve described is in compliance. It doesn’t make sense, from a strictly logical standpoint, that something occurred to cause the defendant, the suspect, to break character. He’s out of character,” Heal said. “If he’s going to decide to fight, why put himself in such a position? At such a disadvantage?”
Heal said that while the public often panics at word of a suspect being shot in the back, law enforcement officers are trained to fire at whatever target presents itself in a deadly force situation. But Heal also questioned why deputies ordered the suspect to lay prone near the weapon he had just surrendered.
Questions about the validity of Vega’s statement, as well as whether Guardado behaved in a way that might have caused the deputies to fear for their lives, will likely persist no matter the outcome of the investigation, because the Sheriff’s Department has yet to issue body-worn cameras to its deputies. Investigators said they have not recovered any video footage of the shooting.
“There’s just a lot of loose ends here,” said Heal, who has long been critical of the department’s failure to outfit deputies with cameras. “We could look at the body footage and find out what was going on. It’s not definitive, but it’s certainly convincing.”
The Sheriff’s Department has said it will begin rolling out use of body cameras in October.
Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and prosecutor in New York City who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, disputed the notion that Guardado’s alleged lack of compliance after first following orders was unusual, arguing that his surrender would not have been completed until he was handcuffed.
“That is a huge piece of police work that it’s not over until it’s over,” O’Donnell said of Vega’s actions while approaching Guardado. “That could be the most dangerous time.”
He also said it was not abnormal for Vega to fire when his partner did not.
“The blunt reality of policing is, if you send two officers to a call, one set of officers might shoot, and a different set of officers might not,” O’Donnell said. “You can’t over read it, because some of the cops are frankly afraid to shoot at this point.”
Poor tactics prior to a shooting are rarely enough to lead to criminal charges. In 2016, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office declined to prosecute Long Beach Police Officer Jeffrey Meyer for sticking his gun through a window and fatally shooting 19-year-old Hector Morejon, who was unarmed.
Meyer was responding to a trespassing call and, instead of waiting for a building employee to obtain a key for the apartment he was investigating, walked down an alley without his partner and failed to identify himself as an officer before pointing his weapon through a window. He shot Morejon in the back, believing he was armed, but no weapon was recovered.
Prosecutors determined that Meyer’s “tactical deficiencies were a substantial, if not the primary cause” for Morejon’s death but said those failings did not rise to the level of criminal conduct since they had no independent evidence to counter Meyer’s narrative of the shooting.
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