L.A. officers faulted in helicopter shooting said man was armed when he wasn’t, commission report says
A review of a fatal shooting last year in Sunland by Los Angeles police who were on the ground and in a helicopter found that several officers fired after the suspect no longer posed an imminent threat and that others were too far away to determine the threat.
The report released Friday provides insight into a decision by the Los Angeles Police Commission that 12 officers violated department policy on the use of lethal force in the death of Anthony Soderberg.
For the record:
10:15 p.m. May 11, 2018A previous version of this article said three officers shot from a distance as much as 189 feet. The distance was 189 yards.
The review provides a detailed summary of the May 8, 2017, incident in which a woman called police when she encountered a 29-year-old man in her home who was “speaking to himself and referencing Jesus,” the report said.
The fatal incident marked the first time that Los Angeles Police Department SWAT officers opened fire from a helicopter, which was brought in because the house was perched on a hill and in dense terrain.
Commissioners in a closed session this week voted 3 to 1 to find 12 of 13 officers out of policy in the shooting, in opposition to a report by Chief Charlie Beck that found the officers’ actions were justified. Steve Soboroff, the president of the commission, supported Beck’s position but declined to comment on his reasons.
The commission report concluded that Soderberg, who barricaded himself inside the home and engaged in an hours-long standoff with the LAPD, posed a threat when he armed himself with a pistol and fired into the air at the helicopter and at officers. But the investigation found that he was not armed when he emerged from the home.
The report concluded that officers failed to continually reassess the threat Soderberg posed throughout the incident. Nine of the 12 officers cited a gun or a “dark object” in rationalizing the gunfire that came after Soderberg emerged from the home. But, the report said, the investigation found no dark objects or guns outside of the home.
One officer fired 14 rounds from the helicopter, which was 75 to 85 yards away from Soderberg. Three of the other officers shot from a “considerable distance” — as much as 189 yards — which the commissioners said limited their ability to accurately assess Soderberg’s actions as a deadly threat. The commission said that it was “not reasonable for these officers, from their distant location, to believe their intervention with lethal force was warranted.”
Most of the officers were veterans of the department with experience ranging from 11 years to 24 years.
In his report to commissioners, Beck said that all the officers involved in the incident acted in policy. The police union that represents rank-and-file officers said in an earlier statement that it was “extremely disappointed with the commission’s decision” and that the officers should be getting a “thank you” instead of a rebuke.
Sam Walker, an expert on police accountability, and a former professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said that there seemed to be “multiple problems” with the shooting.
“You can definitely fault the shooting from a helicopter and you can definitely fault the shooting from 189 yards,” Walker said.
In recent years, Walker said that police departments across the nation — including the LAPD — have embraced deescalation tactics. Just last year, the LAPD revised its use-of-force policy, calling on officers to try to deescalate tense situations.
“You don’t automatically do the first thing you think you should do,” Walker said.
An attorney for Soderberg’s family, Greg Kirakosian, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the department this week. The suit alleges that some witnesses have contradicted the official account of the shooting. Kirakosian said that Soderberg was homeless at the time of the incident and had wandered into the home to find something to eat. He was wounded 17 times, Kirakosian said.
“He was riddled with gunshot wounds,” he said.
The incident began about 9 a.m. after a woman found Soderberg in her kitchen. She escaped out of a window. Officers from the Metropolitan Division SWAT team determined that because the home was in an “elevated position at the end of a cul-de-sac in hilly terrain,” Soderberg posed more of a threat, according to a review of the incident by Beck.
A lieutenant contacted a captain and asked permission to bring in a helicopter. The request was relayed up the chain of command and approved, and a crisis team was also brought in to negotiate with Soderberg.
The first round of gunfire began at 1:05 p.m., when an officer fired two to three rounds after he saw Soderberg holding a blue steel handgun 30 feet away. The commission found that officer acted within policy.
According to the report, Soderberg fired at the helicopter at about 1:08 p.m., then went inside the house. When he emerged at 1:48 p.m., he was no longer armed, according to the report. The last round of gunfire came from police at 2:42 p.m., the report said.
Investigators found seven cartridge casings fired from Soderberg’s weapon.
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