On a warm spring day, eight of David Ordaz, Jr.’s relatives convened in the backyard of his sister’s home in Montebello to remember him.
For more help:
Find 5 Action Steps for helping someone who may be suicidal, from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Six questions to ask to help assess the severity of someone's suicide risk, from the Columbia Lighthouse Project.
To prevent a future crisis, here's how to help someone make a safety plan
Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s 24/7 Help Line (Spanish available): 800-854-7771
East Los Angeles Women’s Center 24/7 crisis hotline (Spanish available): 800-585-6231
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 for 24/7 crisis counseling
They sat semicircle on patio furniture, a box of tissues at the ready, grieving as they recalled witnessing Ordaz, Jr.'s death on the sidewalk in front of their home two months ago. He had been shot by Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies who had responded to the family's call for help.
Ordaz, Jr., 34, was experiencing a mental health crisis that day. His family trusted that law enforcement officers could help calm him, as they had done in the past. Now, the Ordaz family is emblematic of a movement to make emergency responses to mental health crises more safe.
The LAPD and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department both have special teams made up of an armed officer and a mental health worker. But those units are stretched thin, so often it’s left to regular patrol officers to respond to psychiatric crises.
That’s what happened when Ordaz, Jr.'s sister called the Sheriff’s Department for help on March 14.
Reformers point to the case as the latest example of the need to move away from an armed response in these types of cases.
A Sheriff’s deputy who works in the department’s special mental health unit argues there are times when you need someone with a gun.
A Kind Heart
Ordaz, Jr.'s older sister, Hilda Pedroza, said her brother had a kind heart.
“If there was a gathering, he would skim the room and look for that one person that was on the side and go and talk to them, that was the kind of person that he was,” Pedroza said.
Sister Gabby Hernandez said Ordaz, Jr. was a meticulous dresser and someone they could count on to get food for them anytime they were sick.
Ordaz, Jr. grew up in East L.A., one of five siblings. In his late teens, he struggled with his mental health; he was diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorder.
But he was able to manage his condition. He worked in construction and he had three kids with his domestic partner.
He lived on the same East L.A. property as his dad, David Ordaz, Sr., who says he and his son would hang out whenever they got the chance.
A few years ago Ordaz Sr. was diagnosed with cancer. That hit Ordaz, Jr. hard, said Pedroza. “David and my dad were best friends,” she said.
Then another blow: Ordaz, Sr. got very sick with COVID-19. Ordaz, Jr. felt guilty, said Hernandez, who recalled her brother asking, “Did dad catch COVID because of me?”
A Call For Help Goes Horribly Wrong
On March 14, Pedroza panicked after Ordaz, Jr. told her he had a knife. She was worried he might try to take his own life. Pedroza tried to get help every way she knew how that day, including taking her brother to the hospital, but when they arrived he wouldn't get out of the car.
Eventually Pedroza felt she had nowhere else to turn than law enforcement. Back when Ordaz, Jr. had a couple of crises in 2006 and 2007, Sheriff’s deputies were able to peacefully de-escalate things, and she thought they would be able to help again.
The Sheriff’s Department says deputies responding to the call saw Ordaz, Jr. sitting in a parked car in front of the family home in East L.A. They ordered him to exit the car, and as he did, the department said he was holding the knife in his right hand and telling deputies to shoot him.
Hernandez arrived at the scene. She said she was “shocked” to see “so many deputies and so many deputies with guns drawn.”
The Sheriff's Department said deputies opened fire when Ordaz, Jr. charged at them while holding the knife.
But a cell phone video shared by the Ordaz family and one obtained by Fox 11 appear to show him holding a knife while standing on the sidewalk. He’s facing deputies in the street, who are just out of frame. A deputy fires two bean bags at him. Ordaz, Jr. stumbles backwards, turns and begins to run up the sidewalk. The deputies start shooting live rounds, hitting him several times.
As Ordaz, Jr.’s parents, two sisters, two brothers and other relatives watched, deputies kept shooting as he fell to the ground.
“[Ordaz, Jr.’s] head was still up, he was still alive,” Pedroza said. Then a deputy fired one more shot, “and we knew he was dead,” she said.
The family’s attorney, Federico Sayre, called the last shot “murder.” He believes the deputies' tactics before the shooting were wrong and that they should have waited after firing the bean bags instead of almost immediately opening fire.
Sayre says he’s preparing a wrongful death lawsuit against L.A. County.
The department says it’s investigating the shooting, and will release deputy body-worn camera video in the next few weeks.
The debate over how best to handle mental health calls intensified less than three weeks after the Ordaz, Jr. shooting, when a Sheriff’s deputy shot and critically injured 25-year-old Isaias Cervantes while he was experiencing a psychiatric crisis.
For many, that means moving away from using armed police. The city of L.A. is working to develop an approach modeled on an Oregon program that relies on teams consisting of a medic and a crisis worker.
‘A Different Skill Set Than Most Patrol Deputies’
The patrol unit that responded to the Ordaz home on March 14 had requested one of the Department’s Mental Evaluation Teams. Made up of an armed deputy and a clinician from the Department of Mental Health, MET units are specially trained to de-escalate these types of crises.
But the MET unit at the East L.A. station was unavailable that day, because the deputy who staffed it was sick. The next closest team was dispatched from Lakewood, but didn't make it in time.
In the Cervantes case, the deputies who responded did not call a MET unit.
I wanted to observe MET in action, and the department arranged a ride-along.
The day began at MET’s dispatch center in South El Monte. Deputy Humberto Barragan sat under a large screen that displayed the location of MET units across the county — from the Antelope Valley to South L.A. It’s his job to coordinate where to send out MET’s 33 teams.
“Every team is crisis-negotiation trained, so we have a different skill set than most patrol deputies,” Barragan said.
I met with Lt. John Gannon, head of the MET units. The day of the ride-along was his last day there. After five years running MET, Gannon was moving on to another part of the department after being promoted to captain.
There’s no minimum requirement to become a MET deputy in California, so the department developed its own training schedule, he said.
“It’s about 732 hours of total curriculum in the first year of formalized training,” Gannon said.
That’s about four months of training — far more than the average patrol deputy gets.
‘It’s A Different Level Of Compassion’
For the ride-along, I joined Deputy Joe Miranda as he backed up other MET units. He’s one of MET’s most experienced deputies.
The first call was at an apartment in Baldwin Park. We arrived in a white, unmarked SUV. It’s one way MET tries to lower the temperature when responding to crisis calls.
Deputies were evicting a 21-year-old man whose mother wanted him out of the house because of drug use. The young man was “saying some things which became concerning to the deputies,” Miranda said.
Miranda, another deputy and a mental health clinician were able to talk the young man out of his home and eventually onto a gurney. He was headed to a local hospital. Miranda believed the man may have been high on methamphetamines.
Back in the car, Miranda explained that this job isn’t for everyone.
“It does take a different level of patience, it's a different level of compassion,” Miranda said. “You're going to deal with some individuals that may not be making any sense, and it's not for us to make sense of it, but it's to validate to help get this person the help they need.”
According to the department, up to 34 lives were saved last year during mental health crises, partly thanks to MET.
More MET...Or No MET?
Back at headquarters, Gannon explained that ideally, all patrol deputies would have at least some recent training from MET on how to respond to mental health crises. But not all deputies are up to date.
Gannon said that was evident when David Ordaz, Jr.’s family called for help in March.
“My understanding is of the seven personnel on the scene, two of them had recently been to our trainings,” Gannon said.
If we don’t want to continue to see these outcomes, where police are using lethal force against people who are calling for help, then we have to get the police out of the equation — period."
MET was able to respond to fewer than half of the more than 17,000 crisis calls that came in last year. Gannon said he’d like to see the unit’s numbers nearly doubled, from the current 33 teams to 60.
There is some support on the Civilian Oversight Commission for an increase, but not all commissioners think that’s the right way forward.
“If we don’t want to continue to see these outcomes, where police are using lethal force against people who are calling for help, then we have to get the police out of the equation — period,” said Commissioner Priscilla Ocen.
While Ocen said she believes MET is operating in good faith, she thinks the county should instead put more resources into unarmed responses like the Department of Mental Health’s Psychiatric Mobile Response Teams.
I see it as a high risk to send someone who is not trained or doesn’t have the tools to defend themselves. All these calls are unpredictable.”
Those teams respond to certain nonviolent mental health calls — without law enforcement. There are about 30 for the whole county.
A completely unarmed response is a “noble idea,” said Deputy Miranda. But he argues there’s still a need for law enforcement if someone has a weapon or is acting violently.
“I see it as a high risk to send someone who is not trained or doesn’t have the tools to defend themselves,” he said. “All these calls are unpredictable.”
The state legislature is considering a bill that would provide grants to explore innovative unarmed responses to crisis calls.
Ocen says the county should embrace experimentation, and continue to launch pilot projects that reimagine crisis response.
“We are asking law enforcement to do too much and the tasks that we are assigning to them are inappropriate for the role,” Ocean said. “And if we want to make a change we have to do something different,” she said.
For people like David Ordaz, Sr., those changes can’t come soon enough.
“The police ... must do something to fix all these things because if they don’t, we will continue to lose children, to lose people in the community,” he said. “And that’s not fair.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Psychiatric Mobile Response Teams for L.A. County.