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Two LAPD officers violated policy in fatal Van Nuys hostage standoff, panel finds

Two LAPD officers violated policy in fatal Van Nuys hostage standoff, panel finds
Police Chief Michel Moore said that two of the three officers involved in the shooting should have withheld fire.

Last summer, Los Angeles police released dramatic video of a violent encounter that unfolded near a Van Nuys church: A man in a standoff with police suddenly grabbed a bystander and held a knife to her throat. Three officers then unleashed a volley of gunfire that fatally wounded them both.

On Tuesday, a civilian oversight panel ruled that two of the three officers violated department policy on the use of deadly force in the incident.

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Guillermo Perez, 32, was armed with a knife and a metal chair during the June 16 confrontation. The officers fired a total of 18 rounds when Perez did not follow orders to drop the knife. Officers had initially fired a less-lethal beanbag shotgun, but Perez had blocked some some of those rounds with the metal chair.

Elizabeth Tollison, a 49 -year-old homeless woman, was standing nearby against a wall during the encounter. She used a walker and may have frozen with fear or been unable to quickly move away before Perez wrapped his arms around her and pressed the knife against her throat, police said.

The LAPD identified the officers as Eugene Damiano, Andrew Trock and Cristian Bonilla, all of the Van Nuys Division. It was unclear which of the officers were found to have violated rules that call for lethal force only when protecting oneself or others from imminent injury or death.

But the unanimous decision by the five-member Los Angeles Police Commission coincided with conclusions Chief Michel Moore detailed in a report he presented.

Moore said other officers with similar experience and training would have reasonably believed Perez presented an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury.

But one of the officers “did not have a viable sight picture” of Perez before firing, which caused an “extreme potential for risk of injury to the hostage,” Moore said.

In the case of the second officer found to have violated policy, Moore said he took into “consideration the rapidly unfolding tactical situation” in which the officer made a “split-second decision under stressful circumstances.”

Still, Moore said, the officer should have withheld fire because other officers had “already engaged Perez with deadly force.”

Until the Van Nuys shooting, the Los Angeles Police Department had gone 13 years without killing a hostage or a bystander. The next month, at a Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake, a store manager was fatally shot by a Los Angeles police officer exchanging gunfire with a suspect.

In hostage situations, LAPD officers have long been taught to aim a “precise head shot” at the suspect, Moore said last year.

In the aftermath of the Van Nuys incident, Moore announced changes in tactics and weaponry that may lessen the odds of another hostage situation ending in the death of an innocent person. The changes, Moore said at the time, had already been in the works after worrying trends emerged in LAPD shootings.

Some of the changes included implementing new training as well as equipping officers with a 40-millimeter launcher that fires foam rounds and has a greater chance of stopping suspects than a beanbag gun.

He also issued a training bulletin instructing officers to organize themselves better at scenes to avoid having too many guns pointed at suspects.

Moore will now decide what discipline the officers should face.

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Times staff writer Cindy Chang contributed to this report.

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