Prosecutors announced Wednesday that no criminal charges will be filed against two Los Angeles police officers who shot and killed a woman in 2015 — marking a familiar coda in a controversial slaying that drew a rebuke from a civilian police oversight panel.
The decision not to hold the officers criminally liable in the death of Norma Guzman came after prosecutors reviewed evidence, including video of the shooting captured on the officers' body cameras.
In a memorandum made public Wednesday, prosecutors laid out the facts of the case and concluded that Los Angeles Police officers Samuel Briggs and Antonio McNeely had reason to fear for their lives and "acted in lawful self-defense and defense of others."
According to the document, on the morning of Sept. 27, 2015, a man called 911 to report a woman wielding a knife and screaming outside a barbershop on South San Pedro Street in downtown L.A. When the officers arrived at the scene and spotted Guzman, Briggs told McNeely that she looked crazy, adding an expletive. A moment later he said: "Oh, she's got a knife!"
The report said that Guzman quickly approached the officers while holding a knife in her right hand, gesticulating with her left hand and yelling something unintelligible. Briggs then yelled, "Drop the knife!" six times, the report said, but Guzman kept approaching them. The officers shot her three times and Guzman died at a hospital soon after.
Guzman, 37, reportedly had a history of mental health problems and had methamphetamine and THC in her blood at the time of the shooting, according to prosecutors.
A man working at the barbershop the day of the shooting said he heard officers yell, "Stop! Stop!" before he heard gunshots and another witness said he heard police yelling at Guzman to drop the knife. After the officers shot her, the witness said, he saw one of the officers handcuff Guzman and recover "a long, silver-looking thing" — a serrated 7-inch blade, according to the report.
A female witness insisted that Guzman didn't have a weapon at the time of the slaying, and surveillance video captured on a nearby security camera, which was released last year by an attorney for Guzman's family, is too blurry to decipher whether Guzman was holding anything.
But prosecutors argue that the body-camera footage "shows clearly that Guzman was armed with a knife." Their memorandum includes an image from the video recorded on Briggs' body camera, which appears to show Guzman's hand pointed downward and holding a long object.
Neither prosecutors nor law enforcement have released the body-camera video in the case. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey previously told The Times that she has concerns about releasing video before her office decides whether to file charges. Once a decision is made, she said, it should be left to the agency involved whether to release video. The Los Angeles Police Commission, a civilian oversight panel that monitors the police force, is in the process of collecting feedback from the public to help shape a policy that will dictate when the department releases video.
Arnoldo Casillas, who is representing Guzman's mother, didn't respond to requests for comment Wednesday, but had previously called on prosecutors to charge the officers and questioned why they hadn't first turned to less-lethal devices, such as Tasers, before shooting Guzman. The victim's mother, Gloria Gonzalez, spoke to reporters last year, crying as she recalled the first time she watched footage of her daughter crumpling to the ground.
"I couldn't believe what was happening," she said in Spanish. "I couldn't believe they had done this to her."
Local activists gathered to demand charges in the killing of Guzman — one of 21 people killed by on-duty LAPD officers in 2015 — and her death helped fuel a nationwide rallying cry for law enforcement to be held criminally liable in high-profile shootings. It is extremely rare for police officers to be charged in on-duty shootings — it hasn't happened in L.A. County in more than 15 years.
In September, the Police Commission broke ranks with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and faulted one of the two officers who shot Guzman for his tactics and for his use of deadly force. In a written report to the commission last year, Beck said he believed that both officers who shot Guzman had acted within the department's use-of-force policy. But Beck criticized one of them — whose name was redacted in the report — for not carrying a Taser, which violated a policy implemented by department brass days earlier.
Still, Beck wrote, the officer's tactics didn't "substantially deviate" from department training.
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Times staff writer Kate Mather contributed to this report.