Advertisement
Share

LAPD tactics under scrutiny after officer fatally shoots girl in Burlington dressing room

LAPD officials investigate the scene of a fatal police shooting at a Burlington in North Hollywood on Thursday.
LAPD officials investigate the scene where officers fatally shot an assault suspect and a 14-year-old bystander at a Burlington clothing store in North Hollywood on Thursday.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Not long after Los Angeles police killed a teenage girl while firing at a suspect in a North Hollywood clothing store Thursday, Albert Corado started getting texts from friends and jumped on the phone with his father to process the familiar emotions together.

The similarities to the fatal LAPD shooting of his 27-year-old sister, Melyda “Mely” Corado, as she worked a shift at a Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake in July 2018, were clear, he said — and infuriating.

“To think, over three years after what happened to Mely happened, that there’s been no change whatsoever in the way the police deal with these situations, just shows the police have no desire to change,” Corado said. “They use deadly force pretty much whenever they feel like it.”

Advertisement

Much about the fatal LAPD shooting of 14-year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta — who was at the Burlington store with her mother trying on dresses for a quinceañera when she was shot through a dressing room wall — remained unclear on Christmas Eve.

But it has already sparked widespread anguish and outrage, particularly in a year in which shootings by Los Angeles police officers increased after years of declines. The violence has also brought scrutiny about the tactics used by the responding officers and whether there were ways to de-escalate the situation without opening fire or at least not putting Valentina in harm’s way.

“Two things I promise is to be deliberate and thorough, and to be totally transparent,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said Friday. “That’s what everybody deserves — that we get to the bottom of what happened and share [it] with the public. It’s just a horrible, horrible tragedy.”

Many questions loomed Friday at the bustling North Hollywood shopping district where the shooting occurred.

“Cómo se pueden disparar a lo loco?” asked 70-year-old Graciela Cornejo, who lives nearby and stood outside the store Friday as workers inside vacuumed and swept shattered glass. “How can they shoot crazy like that?”

“They’re trained for all of this,” Cornejo said of the officers. “I just can’t understand.”

Edwin Arroyo, supervisor of Nancy’s Cleaning Services, spent Friday morning cleaning up broken glass near the front doors before heading inside to the second-floor dressing rooms. There, he said, was blood smeared on a wall, on a cream-colored dress left on a hanger, and on more than a dozen other items — which he called “a horrible scene.”

“I don’t know how many gunshots there were,” he said, “but there was a lot of blood.”

After wheeling a trash can filled with the dress and other items outside to dispose of, Arroyo said he was headed home. Once he got there, he said, he planned to hug his own daughters tight.

“The little girl was trying on a dress,” he said, his tone grim. “The parents never imagined their daughter would die here.”

According to police, officers responded to a call about an assault with a deadly weapon at the store in the 12100 block of Victory Boulevard about 11:45 a.m., and soon after shot the suspect a short distance from a woman who he had been assaulting and who was “suffering from various injuries and bleeding.”

The man, identified by the Los Angeles County coroner’s office Friday as Daniel Elena Lopez, 24, was fatally shot in the chest. The unidentified woman he had allegedly been assaulting was taken to a hospital for treatment.

Only after the shooting, as they searched the store for additional victims or suspects, did officers find Valentina, who had been struck by an officer’s round that had pierced a wall near Elena Lopez and struck her in a changing room, police said. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

A heavy metal lock was recovered near Elena Lopez, police said, but no gun. Video posted online appeared to show a man smash a front glass window of the store with a lock on a chain and then enter the store shortly before multiple police vehicles arrived and officers began walking toward the entrance with guns and projectile launchers drawn.

Police and city officials said video from the store and from officers’ body cameras would be released Monday, and that the investigation and review of the shooting will be thorough and fair. They asked for the public’s patience as detectives do their work reviewing the case.

Critics say they’ve heard the same before, and that it never changes the fact that LAPD officers are empowered to pull out their guns too quickly and fire them too freely — especially when they are confronting suspects who do not have guns of their own or who appear mentally ill or intoxicated.

In a year in which LAPD officers have shot 37 people, 17 of them fatally, such questions have become increasingly common. While those figures represent a significant decline from the highs of more than 100 police shootings per year in the early 1990s, they are a significant increase from the 27 people shot by the LAPD, seven of them fatally, in all of 2020, and the 26 shot, 12 fatally, in 2019.

An LAPD estimate earlier this year, when police had shot 30 people, indicated about a third of them were exhibiting signs of mental illness at the time. Officers in recent years have also shot suspects at much farther distances than they perceived them to be in relation to themselves, and when they were unarmed, according to investigations.

There has been much debate about whether there are better tactics for dealing with mentally ill people, including using trained medical clinicians alongside officers. Some have questioned why police are trained to shoot people with knives or blunt objects at a distance, and why officers can’t shoot people in the legs to stop them from getting closer rather than in the center of their bodies, where they are trained to aim.

It’s unclear whether the suspect in the Burlington case had mental issues.

Often in recent years, LAPD reviews have found officers broke policy in how they approached a situation or positioned themselves in relation to suspects, even in instances where the shots they later fired were ruled justified. In some cases, the shots themselves were ruled out of policy. Punishment for such breaches has been meted out, though rarely made public.

In other cases, officers have been cleared of any wrongdoing even when they cause harm to individuals who just happened to be in the vicinity of an incident — as was the case in the shooting of Mely Corado, a manager at Trader Joe’s who was fatally shot by LAPD officers who were chasing and exchanging gunfire with a suspect outside her store.

Police Chief Michel R. Moore and the Police Commission determined that the two officers who opened fire in the encounter that killed Corado were justified in doing so, given the threat posed by the gunman they were chasing, and prosecutors under former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey determined they had committed no crimes.

The killing, which devastated Corado’s family, enraged activists and spurred concerns about police tactics across the city, seemed to then be glossed over by some of the same officials who had called her killing a tragedy, her brother said.

Albert Corado, who is running to unseat City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell in Council District 13 in part to gain more leverage to force change in the police force, said he now fears the same will happen with Valentina’s killing.

“There’s not a lot of will in the LAPD for them to change and there’s not a lot of will in City Hall, in city government, to hold the police accountable,” he said. “That gives the green light to police to keep doing it.”

Valentina’s family could not be reached for comment Friday. The LAPD had not identified the officers who opened fire at the Burlington as of Friday. A woman who answered the door Friday at Elena Lopez’s home in North Hollywood declined to comment.

Records show that Elena Lopez had previously been convicted of car theft, carrying a loaded gun in public and carrying a gun as a felon. He was arrested by LAPD officers in the San Fernando Valley in August 2020 and charged with domestic battery, stealing a car and recklessly fleeing the police, records show.

He pleaded guilty to domestic battery and fleeing the police and was sentenced to two years in state prison. He was also convicted in Glendale in 2020 of stealing a car and identity theft and sentenced to 141 days in county jail, records show.

In June, Elena Lopez was transferred from Los Angeles County jail to the custody of the state prison system. Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, declined to release his commitment history, citing the LAPD investigation.

At the Burlington store on Friday, strangers came to pay their respects and leave flowers.

As rain started to come down, Leila Murca, 22, and her mother Linda ran up to leave white roses in front of a flickering candle outside the store.

“As a mom, I just wanted to leave flowers,” said Linda Murca. “My heart really goes out to the mom in this difficult time.”

Times staff writer Melanie Mason contributed to this report.


Advertisement