Los Angeles police fired a rifle from a helicopter during a shootout with a man killed in Sunland earlier this week, marking the first time that specially trained SWAT officers have opened fire from a helicopter hovering over a scene, the LAPD said Tuesday.
Chief Charlie Beck told reporters that an autopsy would reveal how many times the 29-year-old man was struck by gunfire Monday afternoon — and whether it came from officers on the ground or in the helicopter. But, the chief said, it appears he was struck by gunfire from the air.
Police shootings from helicopters are rare. Experts have said such shootings are justified only in the most desperate situations and when other tactics might be more dangerous.
The decision to bring in officers trained to fire from a helicopter was not taken lightly, Beck said. It requires approval from a high-level officer — in this case, an assistant chief who also discussed it with Beck beforehand.
"When the geography and the circumstances dictate, we want to make sure that it's available. That's exactly what happened in this instance," Beck said.
The events leading to the shooting began earlier that day, Beck said, when a woman woke up and saw an intruder in her home. The woman escaped through a bedroom window and called police, the chief said.
When officers arrived, Beck said, they peered through a window of the home and saw that the man had armed himself with a gun belonging to one of the residence's occupants. The officers then backed off and called for a SWAT team, Beck said, launching a standoff that lasted five hours.
As officers surrounded the house, police used a bullhorn to try to persuade the man to surrender, department officials said.
The house — in the 11300 block of Alethea Drive — was at the top of a hill, surrounded by brush and debris, Beck said. That created what the chief described as a "very difficult location" for SWAT officers, contributing to the decision to bring in the officers trained to fire from a helicopter.
"The suspect definitely had high ground at all of the ground officers, was firing indiscriminately at them — and actually fired at the helicopter, we believe," Beck said.
Police fired tear gas into the house to try to force the man outside. He was shot when he emerged about 2:45 p.m. and opened fire at police, an LAPD spokeswoman said Monday.
After the man was shot, his body rolled down a ravine, where he was pronounced dead. Authorities have yet to release the man's name, saying his relatives had not been notified.
Multiple officers fired their guns during the encounter, Beck said. A department spokesman said no officers were injured, nor was the woman who fled the home.
An investigation into the deadly encounter is underway, which is standard procedure for all shootings by LAPD officers. It also will be reviewed by the district attorney's office, the Police Commission and its inspector general.
Beck told police commissioners Tuesday that investigators still were searching the scene, hampered in part by tear gas vapors still lingering inside the house. But, he said, it appeared that department officials acted appropriately when deciding to put SWAT officers inside the helicopter.
"It requires very specific criteria that have to be met regarding terrain, regarding weather, regarding the threat to the community, regarding the other options that have been utilized," the chief told his civilian bosses. "It appears that those criteria were met. Obviously there will be further review of this to ensure that."
Geoffrey Alpert, a professor at the University of South Carolina who specializes in police use of force, said in certain situations, it may be reasonable for officers who are trained to shoot from helicopters to do so. Approaching a suspect from the air can offer a valuable perspective — "a bird's-eye view instead of a worm's-eye view," he said.
"It's an option most departments shouldn't use because they're not well-trained in it," Alpert said. "But LAPD, one of their specialties is tactical shooting."
Shootings from helicopters typically target suspects in car chases, Alpert said — moving targets that could easily crash into bystanders if the driver is shot. What the LAPD did Monday, he said, "was a much more reasoned approach."
Samuel Walker, a retired criminal justice professor and policing expert, called the LAPD's move "reckless," saying the movement inside a police helicopter increased the risk of a dangerous mistake. Even if there are strict policies in place, Walker said he did not believe officers should fire their guns from the air.
"I just worry that it sets a bad precedent," he added. "You can have some other departments saying, 'Well, if the LAPD can do it, we can do it.'"
When other Southern California officers have fired shots from helicopters, similar questions followed about why the tactic was used.
In 2015, San Bernardino County sheriff's officials used a helicopter to fire on a driver in a wrong-way chase on the 215 Freeway. A department spokeswoman at the time said the decision was made because the suspect threatened the public's safety by speeding, running stop signs and traffic lights, narrowly missing pedestrians and driving in the wrong direction.
Perhaps the most famous police helicopter shooting in Southern California occurred in 1982, after a man suspected of robbing an Orange County bank led authorities on a rolling gunbattle through three counties.
According to Times reports at the time, police said Stephen Moreland Redd, 37, fired at officers with an automatic weapon in one hand while steering his car with the other during the 110-mph chase. One officer was wounded.
He surrendered after a San Bernardino sheriff's deputy fired a pistol from a helicopter hovering 20 feet above the freeway. Officials told The Times that the deputy waited for a break in traffic before firing the shot, which hit Redd's rearview mirror.
5:50 p.m.: This article was updated with quotes from Geoffrey Alpert and Samuel Walker.