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Activists, residents want more info from LAPD on woman's shooting death

Activists, residents want more info from LAPD on woman's shooting death
Cmdr. Andrew Smith, shown at a 2013 news conference, said the LAPD is withholding some details in the investigation of an officer-involved shooting until it can be verified. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

The cashier at the Baldwin Hills pharmacy was ringing up a can of soda when the customer slid a note across the counter.

After reading it, the cashier quickly reached for a manila envelope and began filling it with money from the register. The woman with the note flashed a large kitchen knife, the glint of the blade picked up by the store's security camera. The cashier froze.

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The woman took the cash-filled envelope and walked out of the store. A half-hour later, she was dead, shot by police in a nearby alley.

Questions remained Friday about what led police to shoot the woman. Los Angeles Police Department officials said that officers tried to use a Taser first and that they found a large knife at the scene, but have provided few other details about the crucial moments just before the shots were fired, saying they needed to protect the ongoing investigation.

One woman said she witnessed the encounter while sitting in her car in the alley. She questioned why police shot the woman, saying she was running from the officers and never turned to confront them.

Wednesday's shooting marked the 25th time that LAPD officers have shot someone this year. Thirteen of those people died.

Residents and activists have raised concerns about the shootings and said the LAPD should release more information about this week's incident — particularly why the woman was shot.

"They found a knife nearby. Does that mean she was threatening the officers with the knife? What does that mean?" said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. "There's too many loose ends here — not only how it happened, but all the details around it."

Liz Cirelli, 25, who has lived in the neighborhood for about a year, said she was frustrated that police haven't shared more about the shooting. What she did know, she said, troubled her.

"Without publicly accessible information, there can't be real accountability of police-involved shootings," she said.

Cmdr. Andrew Smith, an LAPD spokesman, said investigators typically withhold some information until they can verify it, either by interviewing witnesses or officers or by analyzing physical evidence found at the scene. Releasing details about an investigation too early, he said, could taint the statements of other witnesses or otherwise harm the case.

"The real moment of truth is the couple seconds leading up to the officer-involved shooting," he said. "Certainly those are critical seconds between life and death, and also a shooting that is within or out of policy. Before we give out information to the public about that critical time, we want to make sure we have it right."

Within the last year, the LAPD has had to publicly backpedal after initially releasing erroneous information about shootings.

In December, a deputy chief said two officers returned fire after an "ambush" attack as they drove through South L.A. Later, after reviewing evidence, the department said the gunfire the officers thought was intended for them may have been related to a separate shooting in the area.

This spring, the LAPD said police shot and wounded a man in Westlake after he pointed a handgun at them. The department later said the man did not point the gun at the officers.

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The events leading up to Wednesday's shooting began about 1:40 p.m. in the pharmacy, located in the 3700 block of Santa Rosalia Drive. On Friday, the store's owner showed the surveillance footage of the robbery to a Times reporter.

The video showed the woman walking into the family-owned pharmacy and grabbing a green soda can from a refrigerator. She then walked up to the counter and handed the cashier a dollar. When the cashier opened the register, the woman passed the note.

The store's owner, Sam Lee, said the note claimed she had a gun.

In all, the encounter lasted about two minutes.

When officers responded to the pharmacy, police said, the employee described the woman and said she had a knife. The Those officers broadcast that description to others in the surrounding area, the LAPD said.

About 20 minutes later, police spotted a woman who matched the suspect's description near an alley off Santo Tomas Drive, less than a mile from the pharmacy.

Courtyana Franklin, 21, said she was sitting in her car when she saw the woman and police running down the alley toward her. Franklin said she watched the events from the side mirror of her car and through her rear window.

"I do know for a fact that she was not charging at them," Franklin said.

The LAPD said a Taser cartridge was found at the scene, indicating the device had been deployed. Franklin said she did not see or hear a Taser used.

On Friday, Smith said evidence linking the woman to the pharmacy robbery was found in her clothing, but he declined to elaborate. Detectives had interviewed at least one witness, but were also trying to speak with Franklin.

The officers' patrol car was equipped with a camera, but it did not capture what happened in the alley, Det. Meghan Aguilar said.

The coroner's office had yet to release the woman's name as of late Friday.

After the shooting, activists with the local chapter of Black Lives Matter gathered at the spot to pray for the woman and protest her death. A dozen candles dotted the pavement, next to a bouquet of pink flowers and a figurine of two hands clasped in prayer.

Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at Cal State L.A. and an organizer for Black Lives Matter, said she believed the shooting was another example of police using too much force.

"I feel the LAPD is trigger-happy," she said. "We really need to push for a different model of policing."

Craig Lally, the president of the union that represents rank-and-file officers, said people armed with knives can move faster than the public might expect and present a serious danger to officers or civilians.

"The tendency of people, as long as I've been on the job, is: 'Oh, so he only had a knife,'" Lally said. "They almost look at it as if he's not armed."

Smith said that as with all LAPD shootings, the department would review less-lethal options that the officers could have used.

"We constantly review every single use of force that our officers are involved in," he said. "Part of that investigation is the lessons learned and the applications to the department to see what we can do better."

Hutchinson and Abdullah said they were concerned by the 25 officer-involved shootings so far this year. The numbers have fluctuated in recent years: The LAPD shot 47 people in 2011, but 29 a year later. Thirty-five people were shot by police in 2013, compared with 26 last year.

"We'd like it to be zero," Smith said. "Until there's zero, we're always going to be looking at how we can reduce the number of officer-involved shootings that we have."

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