As he responded to a trespassing call last year, Long Beach Police Officer Jeffrey Meyer walked away from his partner and headed down an alleyway alongside an apartment complex tagged with gang graffiti.
He stopped moving when he noticed a broken window in the rear of the apartment he’d been trying to access.
Meyer believed there were squatters inside. Without calling for his partner or identifying himself as a police officer, he drew his weapon, pulled back the window’s blinds and used the flashlight on his handgun to illuminate the room.
Suddenly, he opened fire.
The bullet struck an unarmed man inside, tearing through his back. Hector Morejon, 19, would die later that day. Meyer said he feared Morejon was turning toward him with a handgun in his hand, but no weapons were recovered at the scene.
In a recent memo sent to Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, the Los Angeles district attorney’s office said Meyer’s actions on April 23, 2015, didn’t rise to the level of criminal conduct. But in a rare move, prosecutors delivered a stinging rebuke of Meyer’s tactics, calling his failure to give Morejon a chance to surrender “deeply troubling” and blaming the officer for turning a routine encounter into a deadly shooting.
“Clearly, Meyer’s tactical deficiencies were a substantial, if not the primary cause, of Morejon’s death,” prosecutors wrote in the memo dated Sept. 22.
The officer wrote that he fired because he “believed that the male was holding a handgun.”
Meyer, a 26-year department veteran, could not be reached for comment.
Long Beach Deputy Police Chief Richard Conant, who chairs the department’s internal board that reviews shootings, declined to comment on Meyer’s tactics. Asked if he agreed with the prosecutors’ criticisms, Conant said, “we respect their findings.”
It is not clear what, if any, discipline Meyer faced. The results of police officer disciplinary proceedings are confidential under California law.
Long Beach does not make public the outcomes of cases brought before the department’s shooting review board. Court documents in a civil case brought by Morejon’s family, however, cited a police lieutenant’s deposition in which he said Luna did not find the shooting out of policy. Conant declined to comment on Luna’s conclusion but said the department thoroughly investigates all uses of force.
Earlier this year, the city paid $1.5 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Morejon’s family. His death was one of several controversial shootings of unarmed people by Long Beach police in recent years.
Conant said he did not believe the killing of Morejon and the other shootings had weakened the department’s bonds with city residents.
“Our community doesn’t look at us as an enemy or an occupier,” he said. “They look at us as partners and friends.”
Rick Wyant, a forensic scientist who has testified in more than 100 use-of-force cases and also serves as a reserve sheriff’s deputy in Washington state, said he agreed with prosecutors’ criticisms of Meyer’s tactics. He said he understood why Meyer could see Morejon’s movements as threatening, but also said his response to being surprised was fairly normal.
“If I’m in my house and someone sticks their head through the window, I’m going to make a jumpy kind of movement, just like anyone else would,” Wyant said.
Still, he said, laws governing officer use of force give police wide latitude to defend themselves.
“The burden of proof is pretty high,” Wyant said.
The initial call that put Meyer and Morejon on a deadly collision course last year had little to do with gangs or gunfire.
Around 2:10 p.m. that day, someone called Long Beach police to report that 11 men and women were vandalizing an apartment they had broken into on Hoffman Avenue. Meyer and another officer, Xavier Veloz, responded to the scene separately.
Meyer was familiar with the area. About a month earlier, he had responded to a call about a shooting near the same location and wrote in his report about Morejon that the alley was known for drug sales and activity by the violent Eastside Longo gang. Prosecutors noted in their memo, however, that Meyer and Veloz did not observe any gang activity in progress at the complex on the day Morejon was shot.
As they investigated the trespassing call, the officers noticed that windows at one of the apartments at the site were either broken or left open, according to the district attorney’s memo. The officers figured squatters were inside.
They asked workers at the complex to call the property management company to come unlock the door.
As they were waiting, Meyer decided to walk down the alleyway.
In the memo, prosecutors repeatedly criticized Meyer’s decision to approach the window alone and draw his weapon. With no other signs of an obvious public safety threat, prosecutors said Meyer’s decisions created danger for himself and any trespassing suspects he might encounter.
“Meyer increased the potential for a violent encounter without any legitimate reason. It is unclear what Meyer hoped to find,” prosecutors wrote. “There was little to gain and much to lose by arming himself and secretly approaching the window.”
Meyer wrote in his report and later told investigators that Morejon turned toward him, prompting him to open fire in self-defense. Morejon, however, was felled by a single gunshot wound to his lower back, according to an autopsy report.
Three other people were inside the apartment when Meyer opened fire, according to the district attorney’s memo. Two of them told prosecutors they were sleeping at the time of the shooting and woke to the sound of Morejon screaming. Neither of them had any idea the police were outside, and both said they cowered in terror, afraid to leave in case the shooter was still nearby, according to the memo.
They said some people stayed at the apartment because they were homeless, while others stayed there after using drugs. Morejon, who also went by the gang moniker “Dynamite,” tested positive for marijuana, fentanyl and methamphetamine, according to an autopsy report and the memo. His family has denied he was involved in gang activity.
A third witness, Edgar Rodarte, was interviewed three times but gave conflicting accounts of Morejon’s movements in the seconds leading up to the shooting.
On the day of the shooting, Rodarte told investigators Morejon had nothing in his hands and did not turn toward the window before Meyer opened fire. Several months later, Rodarte told police that Morejon may have had a glove in his hand, and “turned back toward the living room and pointed just before he was shot,” according to the memo.
In May 2016, he again said that Morejon turned before he was shot. Rodarte also repeatedly changed his account as to whether or not he and Morejon knew police were outside before the shooting occurred, according to the memo.
In their legal analysis, prosecutors said they declined to file murder charges because there was no evidence to contradict Meyer’s statement that he opened fire because he feared his life was in danger.
Prosecutors also weighed filing voluntary manslaughter charges, which they described as a “very close call,” but said they believed they could not prove that crime beyond a reasonable doubt, according to the memo.
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer Matthew Hamilton contributed to this report.
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