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A rectangular photo illustration/collage. In the middle there's a photo of a Latino man wearing a soccer jersey. On either sides of him are replicated photos of him tinted a pale blue. Surrounding him are Virgen de Guadalupe symbols in various rotating forms almost like a kaleidoscope. The background is a mustard yellow.
(Dan Carino
Oscar Leon Sanchez Was Fatally Shot By The LAPD. His Death Renews Calls For Unarmed Mental Health Crisis Response
It’s yet another case that raises concerns about police response to mental health crises and puts the spotlight on the barriers to mental health care for L.A.’s immigrant community.
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On a brisk February evening at a park in South Central, teenagers played soccer under the glow of floodlights.

Caution: This story contains sensitive content

Just up the street, Ysidro Leon motioned to an altar he prepared for his deceased brother, Oscar Leon Sanchez, under their covered patio.

Fresh flowers sat atop a gold tablecloth and candles burned all around. In the center, a picture of Leon Sanchez leaned up against a larger print of Our Lady of Guadalupe. “My brother liked her a lot, he had shirts, he had caps of the Virgin of Guadalupe ... Well, we, like every Mexican, you understand, we always venerate people and our saints,” Leon said in Spanish.

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Leon Sanchez’s photo was marked with the day he was killed by LAPD officers: Jan. 3, 2023.

An altar prepared for 35-year-old Oscar Leon Sanchez, who was fatally shot by an LAPD officer. Fresh flowers sat atop a gold tablecloth and candles burned all around. In the center, a picture of Leon Sanchez leaned up against a larger print of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
An altar for Oscar Leon Sanchez.
(Robert Garrova

Borders and barriers

The first week of January was a deadly one for interactions with LAPD. Within just 48 hours, Takar Smith, Keenan Anderson, and Leon Sanchez were added to the long list of people who have died at the hands of police officers. Two of the men — Smith and Leon Sanchez — appeared to be experiencing a mental health crisis when they were shot and killed.

An Immigrant Was Shot By The LAPD. His Death Renews Calls For Unarmed Mental Health Crisis Response

While both cases raise concerns about police response to mental health crises, the death of Leon Sanchez, a 35-year-old immigrant from Mexico, laid bare the barriers that L.A.’s immigrant community faces in accessing mental health care. Among the obstacles: fear of deportation, a dearth of culturally competent therapists who speak their language, and a cultural stigma around mental diseases and seeking help.

Leon Sanchez arrived in Los Angeles in 2007, according to his family. A psychologist LAist spoke with said she often sees immigrant patients who experienced complex trauma in their home countries. And the stress of adapting to life in the U.S. can exacerbate those issues, especially with the increased anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent years.

Oscar Leon Sanchez wears a green soccer jersey and holds a banner over his head that says Mexico in red lettering. A packed soccer stadium is in the background.
Oscar Leon Sanchez (left) was fatally shot by LAPD officers on Jan. 3, 2023.
(Courtesy Sanchez family )

As Carolina Valle, policy director for the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, put it: “We’ve seen huge attacks on the immigrant population ... And that has had a huge effect on their feelings about accessing care, their feelings about government and their feelings about services.”

Fatal encounter

In an uncommon move, LAPD Chief Michel Moore released officer body-worn camera video from the incidents involving Smith, Anderson and Leon Sanchez at a press conference the week following their deaths.

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In the case of Leon Sanchez, the LAPD said 911 callers alleged he was throwing metal objects at cars and people while holding a knife.

Officers found Leon Sanchez at an apparently abandoned home. In the beginning of the released body camera video, two officers are heard talking to him for several minutes in English and Spanish, asking him to come down from a second-floor balcony.

The LAPD claimed Leon Sanchez advanced toward them with a sharp metal object at which point officers fired live and non-lethal ammunition. In the body camera video, one of the officers is using a riot shield that blocks the view of Leon Sanchez, which makes it impossible to see these alleged actions.

Screenshot of LAPD's officer-worn body cam footage of the fatal shooting of Oscar Leon Sanchez. A flashlight illuminates a second floor balcony at night.
Screenshot of LAPD's officer-worn body cam footage of the fatal shooting of Oscar Leon Sanchez.

According to the L.A. County coroner’s office, Leon Sanchez’s cause of death was “multiple gunshot wounds.” The full autopsy report was not available as of March 22, due to “pending additional testing,” a coroner’s office spokesperson said in an email.

Leon said his brother was struggling with depression after the death of his mother in 2019. Christian Contreras, the family’s attorney, said Leon Sanchez was diagnosed with major depressive disorder after the death of his mother in 2019 and had taken medication to treat his condition.

Jonathan Smith is executive director of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. He is a use-of-force expert who reviewed the footage at LAist’s request.

While Smith said he’s relatively impressed with the officers coordination and decision to have less lethal force ready, he questions why officers didn’t call in one of the LAPD’s specially trained mental health crisis teams made up of an armed officer and a clinician from the Department of Mental Health, especially since a 911 call alleged Leon Sanchez was throwing things at cars and pacing back and forth. One caller said: “It appears that he’s on drugs because he’s assaulting people on the street.”

“The information I have raises very, very serious concerns about whether any force was authorized or useful,” Smith said.

Mental health resources

Assistance For Mental Health Crises Or Support

According to a governmental claim — the precursor to a wrongful death lawsuit — filed by Contreras on Jan. 20, Leon Sanchez’s last words were “‘no les voy a dejar que mi roben,” which translates to ‘I am not going to allow you to rob me.’” The claim goes on to allege that Leon Sanchez “was experiencing a mental health crisis and did not even comprehend the nature of the police contact.”

At the press conference in January, Chief Moore, referring to the Leon Sanchez killing, said “Evidence of mental health issues or so forth at that early stage, I’m not suggesting in my presentation today that they [LAPD officers] would have known that.”

Smith, the use-of-force expert, disagreed. “This case screams out for having had that [mental health crisis team] intervention,” he said.

‘He definitely needed help’

Leon Sanchez’s brother said the body camera video was traumatic for him to watch. He believes the officers shot “without mercy.” He said he wonders if law enforcement forgets that people they shoot have families.

For his part, Leon said he misses the times he went to soccer games with Leon Sanchez, who tried to catch any match where Mexico was playing. He wants his brother to be remembered as a hard working member of the family, someone who took care of their mom when she was sick.

“And then when mom passed away, little by little, he stopped going to work, he started locking himself in his room, he would not come out,” Leon recalled.

Oscar Leon Sanchez  stands wearing a black puffy vest, a brown t-shirt with a skull on it and a necklace with crucifix attached. He wears a black baseball cap.
Oscar Leon Sanchez in a photo provided by his family.
(Courtesy Sanchez family)

Leon remembered his brother sought treatment for his mental health and at one point he attended a support group recommended by a family friend. Leon said his brother was taking prescribed “anxiety and depression pills,” but he doesn’t know when he stopped taking them or why or when he stopped going to the “help program.”

“He definitely needed help,” Contreras said.

Immigrant trauma and stress

Experts consulted by LAist agreed that getting specialized help for mental health conditions is not easy for immigrants, and even more so when you’re undocumented — as Leon Sanchez was.

It may never be clear why Leon Sanchez was not getting the mental health help that his family believes he needed. But the experts laid out some of the most common hurdles to getting care for L.A.’s immigrant population and why their mental health can sometimes be vulnerable.

“I think the biggest barrier is fear of deportation," said Jocelyn Meza, a clinical psychologist and professor in residence in the Department of Psychiatry at UCLA. "A lot of our immigrant patients tell us and they ask us: ‘Is this confidential? Are you going to share with anyone my immigration status?’”

As a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, Meza said she knows firsthand that there is a dearth of therapists who speak Spanish and a cultural stigma around seeking help.

“A lot of immigrant communities do experience a lot of complex trauma in their home countries and when they move here they already have a lot of mental health difficulties that get exacerbated by the acculturative stress that someone goes through when they come to a new country,” Meza said.

It’s part of the reason Meza does outreach at parks, markets and talks to people about a depression group she runs. Meza said it’s important to note that while there are several barriers to mental health care for L.A.’s Latinx community, there are also cultural strengths that work as protective factors.

“Having family-based values which we call familismo, or having a strong ethnic identity attachment, really identifying with your cultural Latino roots is a protective factor,” Meza said.

Meza said it’s important to highlight these strengths and promote them in therapy.

Carolina Valle, policy director for the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN), said she would have liked to have seen mental health professionals respond in Leon Sanchez’s case.

“The police is not an evidence-based health care intervention for mental health care and we need to stop acting like they are,” Valle said.

CPEHN is part of a coalition of more than a dozen groups that sent a letter to state leaders last year urging guidance aimed at “minimizing the involvement of local law enforcement in mobile crisis response.”

A renewed push for unarmed crisis response

Meanwhile, Leon Sanchez’s death at the hands of LAPD and other deadly police encounters have renewed calls from L.A. City Council members and Mayor Karen Bass for unarmed crisis response.

Last month, the Council unanimously approved a measure to fund and create an Office of Unarmed Response and Safety “to support activities associated with developing an unarmed model of crisis response.”

But progress is slow going. L.A. is dealing with a shortage of mental health professionals, political backlogs and a struggling mental health care infrastructure.

According to the LAPD, of the 31 people officers shot at last year, nine had a perceived or confirmed mental illness. The LAPD did not respond to LAist’s request for more detailed information on the immigration status of the people shot.

Alejandro Villalpando with the Coalition for Community Control Over the Police said he’s tired of such statistics. He’s helped organize rallies for Leon Sanchez’s family and others who have died at the hands of police over the years.

“You bear witness to this tremendous grief and rage and mourning amidst everything and you just see them move forward and truck along like in the case of Sanchez’s family,” Villalpando, an assistant professor at Cal State LA, said.

“They’ve already had to survive so much to get to this country and make a life ... I know they have so much more to give and they kind of exhibit that."

Villalpando is also part of a group of organizers called Community Alternatives to 911 (CAT-911). Their goal is to offer alternatives to calling the police during mental health and other crises. He hopes grassroots efforts like these will slowly but surely change the course for mental health crisis response.

About two dozen organizers and family of Oscar Leon Sanchez stand together. Several hold signs which are bright green and orange. Signs read "Justice for Oscar Leon"
Organizers and family of Oscar Leon Sanchez come together for a photo outside of LAPD Newton station.
(Robert Garrova

“Sometimes it does feel helpless, but not hopeless,” Villalpando said.

The LAPD’s Force Investigation Division said it is reviewing evidence collected at the scene as well as interviews with witnesses. According to the police department’s report, as is policy with fatal LAPD shootings, the chief of police, the Board of Police Commissioners, and the office of the inspector general will review the investigation to determine “whether the use of deadly force complied with LAPD’s policies and procedures.”

The governmental claim filed by Contreras on behalf of Leon Sanchez’s family seeks unspecified damages on behalf of another of Leon Sanchez’s brothers, Emmanuel Leon Sanchez. The filing alleges that Emmanuel was at the residence when Oscar was killed and has been “severely traumatized.” Efforts to reach Emmanuel for an interview were unsuccessful.

In an email, the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles said it had “provided the consular assistance requested by family member[s],” in Leon Sanchez’s case, but would not comment further citing “Mexican federal regulations in force concerning confidentiality.”

Ysidro Leon said he’d like to see the officer who killed his brother to be removed from his position so that this doesn’t happen to another family.

“For me ... he’s my brother, my blood,” Leon said, standing on his patio arm's length from Leon Sanchez’s altar. “I feel that I would like for justice to be made, that the officer that was the one who shot that, that he pays for what he did.”

Leon said his brother’s body was repatriated to Puebla, Mexico, where he was buried.

“He needs to rest,” Leon said.

What questions do you have about mental health in SoCal?
One of my goals on the mental health beat is to make the seemingly intractable mental health care system more navigable.

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