An Innocent Life Is Lost As LAPD Officers Make 'Split-Second' Decision In Trader Joe's Shootout
The suspect led police on a wild 15-minute chase through winding Los Angeles city streets, shooting at officers out the back of his car. The patrol officers in pursuit held their fire and pulled back.
Then he crashed outside a Trader Joe's in Silver Lake and the gunman fired more shots at officers, even as he fled into the busy store.
Officers faced a split-second decision: hold their fire or shoot.
They decided to shoot -- yelling at bystanders: "Get down! Get down! Watch your head!"
The harrowing shootout outside the grocery story, captured on police body and dashcams, culminated in an hours-long hostage situation Saturday afternoon. More than 40 customers and staff were trapped inside the store as authorities tried to negotiate with the gunman, who police say was threatening their lives.
In the minutes before the standoff, one of the officers' bullets struck the alleged gunman, Gene Evin Atkins, 28, in the left arm. And as he ran into the store, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore said Tuesday, another police bullet hit an unintended target -- 27-year-old Melyda Corado. Corado died at the scene. The store manager had apparently rushed to the front when she heard the crash.
Moore called her death a "tragic loss" and said the officers were faced with the "worst decision" they'd ever have to make under the most difficult circumstances.
"These are no-win situations," Moore said. "This is a heartbreaking reminder of the split-second decisions that officers must make every day."
Corado's death is likely to heighten scrutiny of officers' decision to fire toward the storefront. LAPD use of force policy allows officers to use force on fleeing suspects when they believe the suspect may pose a significant threat to others. At the same time, officers are cautioned to be aware of the backdrop and "avoid using deadly force that might subject innocent bystanders or hostages to possible death or injury."
Moore, expressing deep regret at a Tuesday news conference, released a detailed account of the events leading up to the fatal shooting in Silver Lake. Moore placed blame squarely on Atkins, who will face multiple charges, including for Corado's murder. Atkins is being held in lieu of $18.7 million bail.
Atkins was being pursued by officers in connection to the shooting of his grandmother and the kidnapping of another woman, identified as his girlfriend, in South L.A. That shooting took place about 1:30 p.m. and police were called to the scene. Authorities had previously said they were able to track down Atkins, who allegedly had stolen his grandmother's car, using LoJack.
Among the new information released Tuesday by Moore:
- Patrol officers began their pursuit of Atkins about 15 minutes prior to him crashing the car outside the Trader Joes in the 2700 block of Hyperion Ave.
- Moore said Atkins fired shots at the officers during the chase but the officers did not return fire.
- After he crashed the car into a pole, Atkins ran from the car and fired at officers again. At that point, officers returned fire. Atkins was shot in his left arm.
- Moore said the investigation found that Corado had moved to the front of the store after the crash, just as Atkins ran inside.
- She sustained a "through-and-through wound to her left arm that moved into her body." Corado then moved back into the store and collapsed behind the manager's desk, the chief said.
After the suspect moved inside the store, officers took up positions behind a nearby wall. The suspect fired more rounds toward officers through a front window, but officers did not return fire, Moore said.
Moore said the investigation is ongoing and he has not made a final decision, but affirmed several times that he believed his officers had done the right thing in returning fire at the suspect when he shot at them at the end of the pursuit.
"As chief of police, I believe it's what they needed to do to defend the people of Los Angeles, defend the people in that store and defend themselves," he said.
Moore took the unusual step of playing both dashcam and bodycam video from the incident during the news conference, although he said technical difficulties meant they didn't play the tape they'd planned on showing.
Later Tuesday morning they released this footage via YouTube.
[Caution: Explicit language and violence is shown]
The video highlights the tense, fast-moving scenario facing officers, one of whom can be seen visibly shaking as gunfire came toward them.
LAPD use of force policy allows officers to use force on fleeing suspects when they believe the suspect may pose a significant threat to others. At the same time, officers are cautioned to be aware of the backdrop and "avoided using deadly force that might subject innocent bystanders or hostages to possible death or injury."
Moore described the patrol officers involved in the shooting as young and solid. One has served for two years and the other for six. Moore said both were devastated by Corado's death.
Atkins arraignment was initially scheduled for Tuesday but is not expected to take place August 14.
He could be held criminally culpable, even though a bullet fired by an officer killed her, because of what is known as the "provocative act" doctrine, in which someone can be tried murder if their actions created a situation which led to it.
One witness at the scene, Christian Dunlop, saw what appeared to be a Trader Joe's employee in a Hawaiian shirt pulling a person out the front door, who he now believed to be Corado. He said the blame lies with the gunman.
"Unfortunately, an individual, from what I understand, made some wrong choices and the repercussion of those wrong choices is why that woman ended up dead," Dunlop said.
Rick Webb, a police use of force consultant and former LAPD commander, said officers faced an incredibly high-pressure situation.
"These officers have to come up to solution very, very quickly," Webb said.
During a special meeting Tuesday to discuss law enforcement's use of surveillance, the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners did not address the shooting at Trader Joe's. When KPCC/LAist later asked about the incident, Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill declined to comment.
Despite the unruly audience, only one person mentioned the shooting as a brief anecdote within a larger speech against perceived police misbehaviors.
Bystander deaths are rare in police shootings.
In 2005, an LAPD officer fired a shot that struck a toddler held hostage in Watts by her father. The little girl, Suzie Marie Pena, was shot once in the head.
The police chief at the time, William Bratton, told the Los Angeles Times the toddler's death marked only the second time that in the nearly 40-year history of SWAT team that "an innocent life" had been lost.
KPCC/LAist politics editor Sandra Oshiro and Bradley Bermont contributed to this story.
7:49 p.m. This story updated with more description of the scene of the shooting.
1:23 p.m.: This story was updated with reporting on a special meeting by the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners.
11:45 a.m.: Based on charging documents released, Atkins middle name has been changed to Evin, it was previously given by authorities as Evins.
11:13 a.m. This story updated with additional information about charges and pressures faced by the officers.
10:38 a.m.: This story updated with additional context about the shooting and tactics, as well as the YouTube video released by the LAPD.
This article originally published at 9:10 a.m. (not p.m. like we said earlier, sorry)
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