Family of autistic man says deputies were warned of his disabilities before shooting
When Isaias Cervantes spiraled into a mental health crisis last week, his family called 911. A sister and a therapist who works with Cervantes told the Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who responded that the agitated 25-year-old had autism and was hard of hearing, according to another sister and a lawyer for the family.
Despite the alleged warnings, the encounter quickly escalated and ended minutes later when a deputy shot Cervantes, causing injuries that could leave him paralyzed.
“Knowing he may not walk, it’s just not right,” said a sister, Yajaira Cervantes. “I wish that they would be more trained officers that know how to deal with disabilities.”
She and a group of demonstrators gathered outside the Hall of Justice downtown on Monday afternoon, some carrying signs that said “Justice for Isaias.”
The Cudahy City Council on Tuesday called for independent investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and the California attorney general. The council also requested that the deputies involved in the shooting be removed from patrol duties in the city.
“I don’t think they serve our community well,” Councilwoman Daisy Lomeli said during Tuesday’s virtual meeting.
“In this case, the system failed the family,” Councilman Jack M. Guerrero said. “And I have many questions about why and how the sequence of events could have possibly led to this most unfortunate tragedy.”
The Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to questions Wednesday about whether the deputies were pulled from patrol duties in Cudahy.
In a news release last week, the Sheriff’s Department said that deputies from the agency’s East Los Angeles station responded on March 31 to a family disturbance at the home where a man had “reportedly been assaulting a family member.” The news release did not name Isaias Cervantes but said that the man “attacked one of the deputies gouging at his eyes while attempting to disarm him” and that the man was shot during the struggle. Sheriff’s detectives are investigating the incident.
Capt. John Satterfield, a spokesman for the department, said the shooting at the family’s house on Live Oak Street in Cudahy, along with the moments leading up to it and its aftermath, was recorded on body cameras worn by the deputies. “We will release video and other pertinent evidence in the near future,” he said.
Sources with knowledge of the case identified the deputy who fired his weapon as David Vega.
Austin Dove, an attorney representing Cervantes and his family, said Cervantes had become irritated and pushed his mother away before one of his relatives called police in hopes they would be able to “calm things down.”
“My mom was really scared and she said ... we should call the police, or they could come and maybe calm him down,” Yajaira Cervantes said.
Instead, Dove said, the deputies “immediately escalated it.”
When two deputies arrived, Dove said, they called Isaias Cervantes to the gate. Cervantes refused, saying he didn’t want to come.
The deputies made their way in and each grabbed one of Cervantes’ arms, Dove said. The three ended up on the floor, and during the scuffle one deputy warned the other that Cervantes “might try to get your gun,” Dove said.
As he struggled against the deputies’ attempts to handcuff him, Cervantes’ hearing aid fell out, Dove said. He added that one deputy drew his weapon and shot Cervantes at close range.
Cervantes was taken to a hospital, where a group of deputies blocked Dove from entering Cervantes’ room for about an hour, the lawyer said. The deputies abruptly left, telling Dove that Cervantes was no longer in custody.
Cervantes’ mother and a behavioral therapist who works with Cervantes witnessed the shooting. They were detained and questioned for hours with investigators asking whether Cervantes was suicidal and whether he hates the police, Dove said.
Citing the ongoing investigation, Satterfield declined to say whether members of the sheriff’s Mental Evaluation Team were called or responded to Cervantes’ house.
Dove said the team’s mental health experts were not at the house. The team typically is summoned by deputies who respond to a call and determine someone may be suffering from mental illness. Its members usually work in pairs: a deputy and a licensed mental health clinician trained to deescalate and avoid the use of force.
In 2020, the team’s members responded to 7,246 calls involving people in mental health crises, a Sheriff’s Department report said. The report said that handling deputies or patrol supervisors at those calls believed that patrol deputies would have “very likely” used force during more than 430 of those encounters had it not been for the mental health team’s arrival.
Programs like the sheriff’s Mental Evaluation Team and the role of police in mental health cases were the focus of intense debate following the death of George Floyd and other Black men and women. Widespread protests against police abuses included demands that police be removed altogether from mental health calls and involvement with the homeless people.
Judy Mark, who runs Disability Voices United, a group that advocates for people with disabilities, said she also helps train police officers on how to approach people with mental disabilities. She said that after the shooting of Cervantes, she has decided she no longer can participate in those training sessions. Unarmed mental health experts, she said, should respond to calls involving mental health issues instead of the police.
“I’m done with the collaboration — we have to create a different way. There is just too much resistance to reform,” said Mark, who has a 24-year-old son with autism. “As families we do not feel safe in reaching out to 911 or police for any circumstance where we may need assistance, so there’s got to be a better way.”
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