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Police mistook bottle in black bag for gun in fatal shooting of Santa Ana councilman’s cousin

A nighttime street scene
An image from police body camera video during the fatal shooting of Brandon Lopez.
(Anaheim Police Department)

Police mistook a water bottle in a black bag for a gun when they shot and killed a Santa Ana councilman’s cousin, authorities said.

That information was revealed in a video recently released by Anaheim police that addresses the killing of Councilman Johnathan Hernandez’s cousin Brandon Lopez, who was shot after a car chase and standoff at a construction area in Santa Ana in late September.

Lopez, 33, was suspected of driving a stolen vehicle and had warrants for armed robberies, domestic violence and driving on a suspended license.

Hernandez has said Lopez was experiencing a mental health crisis and Anaheim police unnecessarily escalated the situation. He was shot by Officers Catalin Panov, Kenneth Weber, Paul Delgado and Brett Heitmann, Anaheim Police Department spokesman Shane Carringer said.

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In L.A., mentally ill people are cycled through what police, mental health officials and advocates agree is a revolving door of temporary psychiatric units and jail wards, never getting the long-term care they need.

The California Department of Justice is investigating the shooting under AB 1506, which requires the department to investigate all police shootings resulting in the death of an unarmed civilian in the state.

The shooting sparked outrage in City Council chambers, with Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento comparing Anaheim police to “a firing squad.” He also questioned the officers’ “provocative decision” to fire flash-bang rounds into Lopez’s car.

Members of the community have mourned Lopez’s death, and scores of people honored him at a vigil late last month that featured a performance by Aloe Blacc.

According to the police video, officers chased Lopez for 35 minutes on Sept. 28 through Tustin, Irvine and Santa Ana until his car became stuck on tracks being constructed for the O.C. Streetcar in the 1200 block of West Santa Ana Boulevard in Santa Ana. Lopez was in the car for several hours as police commanded him to exit.

Sgt. Jacob Gallacher said in the video that a Santa Ana police officer who was monitoring Lopez’s movements in the car reported to other officers that Lopez was reaching under the seat and had a gun. The video has an audio recording of the officer.

“417 right hand,” he said. Police code 417 means “gun.”

Less than an hour before the fatal shooting, Anaheim police had taken command from Santa Ana.

The video shows that about 30 minutes before Lopez was killed, a Santa Ana officer reports that he spoke with a member of the Lopez family who said he intended to commit suicide by cop.

Gallacher explains in the video that Anaheim police decided to shoot a “chemical agent” into the car “with the hopes that it would encourage him to surrender.” After a nearly four-hour standoff, police deployed a gas-filled flash-bang in the car.

Body camera footage shows Lopez leaving the car after the device was fired. Within a few seconds, police shout, “Hands up!” and “Gun!” Several shots are fired, and Lopez falls to the ground.

Gallacher said Lopez had a “black object in his right hand,” and officers were still concerned about a potential gun after he was shot because he was lying on his hands. A nonlethal projectile was fired at his body, but he was unresponsive. He was declared dead at the scene.

Gallacher said no gun was found. Instead, an empty plastic water bottle inside a black Guess bag was discovered underneath Lopez’s body. A note from Lopez was found in the car, along with a knife and drug paraphernalia.

In addition to the state investigation, Anaheim police’s internal affairs and major incident review teams will investigate the shooting.

“As with all critical incident investigations, we withhold judgment and do not draw any conclusions about whether or not our officers acted within our policies and in accordance with the law until after all the facts are known and the investigations are complete,” Anaheim Deputy Chief Rick Armendariz says in the video.

Crime scene photos show a crumpled plastic water bottle and a black bag labeled with the Guess brand
Anaheim police found an empty plastic water bottle in a bag after shooting Brandon Lopez.
(Anaheim Police Department)

Jennifer Rojas, policy advocate and organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, criticized Anaheim police during a phone interview this week for escalating the confrontation after being notified by Lopez’s family that he was suffering from a mental health crisis.

“Roughly 30 minutes after both departments were informed by the family that Brandon was experiencing a behavioral health crisis, he was suddenly and violently killed by Anaheim PD,” Rojas said. “When SAPD and APD respond with armored vehicles and multiple armed agents and chemical agents and flash-bangs, it just once again illustrates that police are not equipped to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.”

Rojas said too many unarmed people experiencing mental health crises have been killed by police in Orange County. The California Department of Justice is also investigating the fatal Tustin police shooting of Luis Manuel Garcia, who was homeless and reportedly suffering from undiagnosed mental health issues when he was killed. Garcia was also unarmed, so the state is investigating under AB 1506, which took effect in July.


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