The walk to school often took Jamar Nicholson and his friends through an alley off Florence Avenue in South Los Angeles. The teenagers’ laughter had become a familiar sound during morning routines, neighbors said.
Tuesday began no differently. Jamar said he and his friends were in the alley about 7:40 a.m. when he heard a man’s voice yell “Freeze!” He turned toward the man — a plainclothes officer — and saw a gun. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground with a bullet in his back.
Jamar, 15, said he was taken to a hospital, handcuffed to a gurney, and patched up. As he was released — the bullet still in him — a Los Angeles police detective approached.
“There was a mistake,” Jamar said the officer told him. “You didn’t commit a crime.”
In fact, what officers thought was a gun was actually a toy — a realistic-looking replica with the tip of the barrel colored orange. The LAPD acknowledged that the officer had shot a teenager who wasn’t holding the weapon. The case renewed debate about replica weapons, which are popular with teenagers but have been at the center of numerous shootings in which police officers believed they were dealing with real weapons.
The violence in the alley comes three months after a similar incident in Cleveland generated national attention. Police responding to a 911 call about someone with a gun in a park fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who it turned out was wielding a toy gun.
LAPD officials on Thursday offered a detailed account of what they say happened Tuesday morning. According to police accounts, two officers following up on a homicide investigation were in an unmarked car when they glanced down the alley and caught a glimpse of someone pointing a gun at another person. One of the officers opened fire when the person did not follow commands to drop the weapon and turned toward the officers.
In the minutes after the shooting, the officers quickly realized that what they thought had been a crime among adults was instead a case of teenagers messing around.
On Thursday, police officials expressed relief that the officer had poor aim, missing his target altogether and only wounding the 15-year-old boy.
But they also staunchly defended the officer’s decision to shoot, saying the near tragedy underscored the need to clamp down on the sale of replica and pellet guns that often look nearly indistinguishable from actual weapons.
“We train these officers to make split-second, life-or-death decisions,” said Steve Soboroff, president of the city’s Police Commission. “When they have a gun pointed at them, there is no time to think, ‘Is that real or a toy? Is the guy 15 or is he 25?’”
Chief Charlie Beck, who has long advocated for stricter controls on the fake guns, expressed frustration at the lengths manufacturers go to make the replicas look as realistic as possible. “How about not configuring them to have the exact dimensions and machining as a real gun?” Beck said Thursday.
At a press conference Thursday, police officials described a fast-unfolding scene in which the officers approached the alley with their weapons drawn and gave multiple commands to drop the gun. The officer fired from about 20 feet away, officials said.
In a separate interview, Capt. Peter Whittingham added that the officer chose to fire when the teen turned toward the officers while still holding the apparent weapon.
Jamar, however, disputed that account, saying the officers never gave an order to his friend to drop the gun and fired immediately after shouting, “Freeze!”
“I promise I never heard anything” like a command to drop the gun, Jamar said from his home, where he is recovering from the gunshot wound. A piece of gauze covered the entry wound.
One of Jamar’s friends, Jason Huerta, 17, said he too did not hear any commands to drop the gun. He acknowledged that one of the teens did have the toy gun out as the group was dancing around in the alley and freestyle rapping.
After the shooting, Huerta said detectives told him that the officers had misinterpreted the scene, believing that Huerta, a Latino, had been cornered by three African Americans. “Three black guys and a Hispanic — it looks wrong,” Huerta recalled one of the detectives saying to him.
Huerta, bending down to pull his school uniform out of his backpack, appeared to the officers as if he was preparing to be shot. “They thought he was about to execute me,” he said.
Colliene Carter, whose apartment looks out onto the alley, gave a similar account, saying she did not hear any commands before the gunfire erupted. Carter said she could clearly hear the officers yelling at the boys after the shooting.
Chalio Medrano, the principal at Alliance Renee and Meyer Luskin Academy High School, described Jamar and the other boys as “typical teenagers,” saying they rarely missed school.
On Thursday, LAPD officials said the department had launched an internal investigation into Tuesday’s shooting, as it does whenever an officer uses deadly force.
“Don’t let your children carry these guns; especially don’t let them play with them outside,” said Cmdr. Andrew Smith, Beck’s spokesman. “We could have had a fatal tragedy here.”
Smith noted this is not the first time such a shooting has occurred in Los Angeles with the surge in recent years in the popularity of airsoft pistols and paintball weapons that resemble real guns.
In 2010, an officer shot a boy in Glassell Park who had been playing with a BB gun, injuring him badly. The shooting resulted in a $24-million payout by the city.
After that incident, state lawmakers gave local officials in Los Angeles the authority to pass an ordinance requiring fake guns to be brightly colored so that they would not resemble real firearms. City Council members proposed a measure, but it never passed, dying in the council’s public safety committee.
Gov. Jerry Brown late last year signed a new law that, among other things, requires BB gun manufacturers to put bright colors on certain parts of the toy weapons. That law, however, does not go into effect until 2016.
Ed Obayashi, an expert on shootings and use of force, said the circumstances of an alley with several young men probably heightened the officers’ concerns about what was going on.
In an interview with The Times, Jamar said he works with a community group on issues that affect inner-city boys and had been hoping to land an internship with the mayor’s office this coming summer. He said he wants to hear from the officer who fired the bullet that struck him.
“I do want to hear that apology that says, ‘I shot you for no reason,’ but I’m not really going to accept it,” the teenager said. “I still have a bullet in my back.”
But his older sister spoke about the need to forgive. Jamar paused as he pondered again what he would do if the officer gave him a sincere apology before responding: “We gonna be straight.”
Times staff writers Scott Glover, Veronica Rocha and Alice Walton contributed to this report.