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Anaheim police mistook plastic bottle in bag for a gun in fatal shooting of councilman’s cousin

Body cam footage of the fatal police shooting of Brandon Lopez.
(Screenshot by Ben Brazil)

Police mistook a water bottle in a black bag for a gun when they shot and killed a Santa Ana councilman’s cousin in late September.

That information was revealed in a video recently released by Anaheim police that addresses the killing of Councilman Johnathan Hernandez’s cousin, Brandon Lopez, who was shot after a car chase and hours-long standoff at a construction area in Santa Ana.

Lopez, 33, was suspected of driving a stolen vehicle and had warrants for armed robberies, domestic violence and driving on a suspended license.

Hernandez has said Lopez was suffering from a mental health crisis and Anaheim police unnecessarily escalated the situation. He was shot by Anaheim police officers Catalin Panov, Kenneth Weber, Paul Delgado and Brett Heitmann, Anaheim police spokesman Shane Carringer confirmed.

The California Department of Justice is investigating 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.

The shooting sparked outrage in City Council chambers, with Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento comparing Anaheim police to “a firing squad.” He also questioned the Anaheim police’s “provocative decision” to fire flash bangs into Lopez’s car.

Members of the community have also mourned Lopez’s death. Scores of people honored him at a vigil late last month that featured a performance from Aloe Blacc.

According to the police video, police chased Lopez for 35 minutes on Sept. 28 through Tustin, Irvine and Santa Ana until his car became stuck on tracks being constructed for the O.C. Streetcar in the 1200 block of West Santa Ana Boulevard in Santa Ana. Lopez was in the car for several hours as police commanded him to exit.

Sgt. Jacob Gallacher said in the video that a Santa Ana police officer who was monitoring Lopez’s movements in the car, reported to other officers that Lopez was reaching under car seats and had a gun. The video had an audio recording of the Santa Ana officer.

“417 right hand,” he said. Police code 417 means “gun.”

Less than an hour before the fatal shooting, Anaheim police took command of the incident from Santa Ana.

The video shows that about 30 minutes before Lopez was killed, a Santa Ana officer reports that he spoke with a member of the Lopez family, and they said he intended to commit suicide by cop.

Gallacher explains in the video that Anaheim police decided to shoot a “chemical agent” into the car “with the hopes that it would encourage him to surrender.” After a nearly four-hour standoff, police deployed gas and a flash bang at the car.

Body camera footage of the shooting shows Lopez leaving the car after the flash bang was fired and the car filled with gas. Within a few seconds, police shout “Hands up!” and “Gun!” Several shots ring out and Lopez falls to the ground.

The moment a flashbang and chemical agent are deployed at Brandon Lopez's car.
The moment a flashbang and chemical agent are deployed at Brandon Lopez’s car.
(Screenshot by Ben Brazil)

Gallacher said Lopez had a “black object in his right hand,” and officers were still concerned about a potential gun after he was shot because he was lying on his hands. A nonlethal projectile was fired at his body, but he was unresponsive. He was dead at the scene.

Gallacher said that a gun was not found. Instead, police found an empty plastic water bottle inside a black Guess bag underneath Lopez’s body. A note from Lopez was found in the car, along with a knife and drug paraphernalia.

In addition to the state investigation, Anaheim police Internal Affairs and Major Incident Review team will be investigating the incident as well.

“As with all critical incident investigations, we withhold judgment and do not draw any conclusions about whether or not our officers acted within our policies and in accordance with the law until after all the facts are known and the investigations are complete,” Anaheim Deputy Chief Rick Armendariz said in the video.

Anaheim police found an empty plastic water bottle in a bag on Brandon Lopez.
Anaheim police found an empty plastic water bottle in a bag on Brandon Lopez.
(Screenshot by Ben Brazil)

Jennifer Rojas, policy advocate and organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, criticized Anaheim police during a phone interview this week for escalating the incident after being notified by Lopez’s family that he was suffering from a mental health crisis.

“Roughly 30 minutes after both departments were informed by the family that Brandon was experiencing a behavioral health crisis, he was suddenly and violently killed by Anaheim PD,” Rojas said. “When SAPD and APD respond with armored vehicles and multiple armed agents and chemical agents and flash bangs, it just once again illustrates that police are not equipped to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.”

Rojas said too many unarmed people suffering from mental health crises have been killed by police in Orange County. The California Department of Justice is also investigating the fatal Tustin police shooting of Luis Manuel Garcia, who was homeless and reportedly suffering from undiagnosed mental health issues when he was killed. Garcia was also unarmed, so the department is investigating under AB 1506, which took effect in July.

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