‘It really does appear to be a firing squad’: Officials address police killing of councilman’s cousin

An Anaheim Police vehicle.
An Anaheim police vehicle. The cousin of a Santa Ana councilman was shot by Anaheim police last week.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

A week after a Santa Ana councilman’s cousin was shot and killed by Anaheim police, city officials addressed the incident on Tuesday night.

Councilman Johnathan Hernandez’s cousin Brandon Lopez was killed on Sept. 28 after a car chase and hours-long standoff with police at a construction area on Santa Ana Boulevard in Santa Ana. Lopez was allegedly driving a stolen car and was wanted for armed robberies.

Hernandez has said Lopez was suffering from a mental health crisis and Anaheim police unnecessarily escalated the situation.

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta announced last week that the California Department of Justice will investigate the shooting under Assembly Bill 1506, which requires the department to investigate all police shootings resulting in the death of an unarmed civilian in the state. Anaheim police spokesman Shane Carringer said the department’s Internal Affairs unit will examine if the officers’ actions were within the scope of department policy and the Major Incident Review Team will conduct an examination of the incident with regard to tactics, training, equipment, policy, communication and command and control. The MIRT investigation will focus on how employees performed in those areas and what improvements can be made, Carringer said.

Carringer said four officers were involved in the shooting, but they are not being publicly identified yet.

During a somber speech at the Santa Ana council meeting, Hernandez spoke about the need for police reform and said his cousin’s shooting won’t be the last.

“Let the mental health professionals help people in need because a mental health crisis should not equal death,” Hernandez said. “Long live Brandon Lopez and everybody else who has been a victim to police violence.”

Footage of the shooting circulated on social media last week. In the short video, police are seen firing flash bangs into the vehicle Lopez is in. He exits the vehicle and is shot while running. Multiple gunshots can be heard in the video.

In response to a question about why police fired the flash bangs, Carringer said he would not comment on specific tactics or equipment deployed because it’s an ongoing investigation. However, he did say that “flash bangs are typically deployed as diversionary devices.”

Huntington Beach police responded to reports of gunfire in downtown Huntington Beach at around 11:40 p.m. Tuesday.

Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento said at the council meeting that the Anaheim police appeared to be “a firing squad” in the video footage.

“Brandon was not perfect, as all of us aren’t perfect and that doesn’t mean though that he wasn’t entitled to due process, or did he abdicate his civil rights,” Sarmiento said. “As with other police pursuits, this one should have ended with an arrest ... But it shouldn’t have ended with a murder.”

Sarmiento later questioned why the police escalated the situation with Lopez and why the city was forced to relinquish control of the crime scene to Anaheim police.

“Why make a provocative decision to fire a flash grenade into the vehicle, rather than simply wait?” Sarmiento said. “Why was there a forced evacuation of the vehicle? Why was that met with lethal force?”

Antonio Lopez, Brandon’s father, also spoke at the Santa Ana council meeting. He described the Anaheim police who shot his son as a “death squad.”

“On behalf of my son, I don’t want him to die in vain,” Antonio Lopez said. “As far as if he had to die for a cause, I want it to be for him to help people that have mental illness. And if there can be reform or some kind of restructure for teaching officers to be more respectful and more self controlled, so be it. But I just want to have justice and peace for my son. Because if there’s no justice, there’s no peace. And if there’s no peace, there’s not going to be any justice.”

Also during the meeting, the council unanimously approved a contract with homeless service provider CityNet to provide street outreach and care to homeless people, particularly those suffering with mental illness. The pilot program will steer these calls for service away from the police department.

According to a staff report, 16% of the police department’s calls for service over the last year were homeless-related, many of which regarded mental-health concerns.

The goal of the program is to have experts respond to nonviolent mental health or substance abuse calls who have training in crisis intervention, mental health, addiction and other medical services in order to deescalate situations so they do not become violent, the staff report says.

Many Orange County cities have been adopting similar programs in order to free up police and decrease violent confrontations between law enforcement and people with mental health issues.

Many have criticized police responses to mental health calls because officers may lack the expertise to deescalate tense situations. Often, the sight of a law enforcement officer can aggravate a person suffering with mental health issues, they say. Besides the shooting of Lopez, this perspective hit close to home last year when Kurt Reinhold, a homeless Black man with mental health issues, was shot and killed during a confrontation with Orange County sheriff’s deputies in San Clemente. The incident provoked outrage similar to the highly publicized Fullerton police killing of Kelly Thomas, a schizophrenic man who was beaten to death a decade ago.

Orange County isn’t alone contending with the issue. Since the killing of George Floyd more than a year ago, many have called for police to refrain from engaging in mental health calls. Los Angeles has been working on using trained specialists to respond to calls instead of law enforcement.

Cities are pursuing these teams in a few different ways. Fullerton and Buena Park are partnering together in an effort known as Project HOPE.

Another method being considered by some cities is the use of mobile response teams provided by Be Well OC, which provides mental health support to county residents. It runs the first mental health and wellness campus in Orange County. Huntington Beach and Garden Grove have chosen to partner with Be Well OC to implement the response teams. Irvine is currently exploring the program and figuring out how best to integrate it into the city’s current health response system. Several other Orange County cities are considering the teams.

During the council meeting, Santa Ana moved forward with its potential creation of a police oversight commission, something it has been considering over the last several months. Sarmiento named council members Phil Bacerra, Jessie Lopez and Hernandez to an ad hoc committee that will study and discuss the ins and outs of police oversight models.

“I think unfortunately we had this officer-involved shooting just a week ago ... we want to get this thing moving quickly,” Sarmiento said.

Also on Tuesday night, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu addressed the shooting.

“Any loss of life involving police is tragic, and this incident speaks to the difficult situations our officers face keeping us safe,” Sidhu said. “Our thoughts go out to Santa Ana Council member Hernandez and his family. Last week, I reached out to Santa Ana Mayor Sarmiento and expressed the same.

“We do not have a full understanding of what took place. We do know that this incident will undergo extensive review. We welcome that review, and we’ll respect that process.”

Anaheim Councilman Jose Moreno conveyed his support for the city to host a community forum on the shooting and the need for the city to be notified when the police body camera footage of the shooting is set to be released, which must occur within 45 days under state law.

Moreno also said he hopes that the council’s approval Tuesday night of a one-year pilot program with Be Well OC for the mobile response teams will help with preventing incidents like the Lopez shooting.

“According to the family, he was having a mental health breakdown,” Moreno said. “It is unfortunate and devastating that the chase resulted in his death, and I’m hopeful that the Be Well OC contract tonight is one that will move us towards a more holistic approach when we believe that there may be a mental health condition happening in these circumstances.”

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.