It’s a debate raging across the U.S., how cities deal with mental health crisis response in real time.
More and more, there’s the question – even among law enforcement officials like Sheriff Don Barnes – of whether police are the proper frontline response to such crisis situations.
This week, Santa Ana City Councilman Johnathan Ryan Hernandez got an up-close look, watching Anaheim police shoot and kill his cousin despite warning officers his cousin was having a mental health crisis and needed de-escalation.
His cousin’s death, he said, left him with this conclusion:
“If you are having a mental health crisis, you are not safe in the hands of the police,” Hernandez said in a Wednesday phone interview after cellphone footage of the confrontation was posted across social media.
After a police pursuit and an hours-long standoff along Santa Ana Boulevard Tuesday night, officers forced 34-year-old Brandon Lopez — who was suspected of armed robberies — out of his car with an apparent flash bang and then shot him multiple times, killing him, as soon as he got out.
Hernandez said he tried telling an officer that Lopez was having a mental health crisis when he and other family members arrived on scene during the standoff, but they dismissed his appeal and ordered him to step back.
“They killed him,” he said. “In my district, in my city, in front of his family, my family member gets killed on the very block he grew up in, by a police department that isn’t even from here. Then they left. They just dipped. Business as usual. This was a mental health crisis. He needed help.”
Anaheim Police Department spokesperson, Sgt. Shane Carringer, on Wednesday said an investigation was underway when asked why officers shot Lopez instead of trying to apprehend him during the standoff along Santa Ana Boulevard.
The state Attorney General’s Office also announced late Wednesday that it will probe the shooting.
Videos of the police shooting promptly made the rounds on social media beginning Tuesday night.
One clip captures the anguished screams of bystanders following the shooting.
Hernandez says those screams came from his family.
The Anaheim Police Dept. in an official statement claims investigators spotted Lopez driving a stolen vehicle in Santa Ana Tuesday. The department’s statement does not name the person.
It’s unclear why Anaheim police officers were in Santa Ana.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office has initiated an investigation into the shooting, according to a statement the office released Wednesday evening.
The City of Santa Ana also issued a statement on the shooting Wednesday evening.
“The City of Santa Ana offers its deepest condolences to the family of Brandon Lopez, including his cousin, Santa Ana Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez. Mr. Lopez died on September 28 following an officer-involved shooting involving the Anaheim Police Department in Santa Ana.”
Lopez leaves behind five children, and his mother and father, according to the statement.
Hernandez, who campaigned for office on a platform that included combating police violence, said Lopez was known to have mental health issues and that he tried to relay that to officers when he and family members arrived at the scene of the standoff at roughly 8 p.m.
After the shooting, officers pronounced the person dead on scene, according to official police statements.
The standoff with officers spanned several hours, after both Anaheim and Santa Ana police discontinued their initial pursuit due to what they said was the suspect’s “dangerous driving” while a police helicopter monitored overhead.
The suspect’s car eventually got stuck in a construction area on Santa Ana Boulevard, and Carringer said police attempted to negotiate a peaceful surrender until approximately 8:45 p.m. “when (Anaheim) S.W.A.T. and tactical negotiators replaced Santa Ana personnel on scene.”
“Anaheim PD negotiators also worked for over an hour in an attempt to convince the suspect to surrender but he refused,” the department claims in its official statement, adding that only Anaheim police fired at the person.
Following the shooting, Hernandez said Santa Ana police officers on scene arrested bystanders who vocally objected to the officers’ actions.
When asked about this, Santa Ana Police Sgt. and department spokesperson Sonia Rojo said police “were managing the perimeter of an active crime scene” and that a few people attempted to cross it “after being directed not to enter.”
“When officers attempted to keep them out of the crime scene, they refused to comply with lawful police orders. As a result, three people were arrested for PC 148 and transported to the SAJ for booking,” Rojo said.
Hernandez said Lopez was a tattoo artist and hip-hop fan, namely of the late Nipsey Hussle and Tupac Shakur. He also described him as an avid skateboarder when he was younger, as well as a classic car and bike enthusiast.
His cousin’s death comes just as the Santa Ana City Council is currently in the process of exploring a police oversight body in their own city, which has long faced scrutiny for officials’ fiscal and political emphasis on policing.
The City of Anaheim currently has a Police Review Board which reviews major police incidents and works with the city’s independent external auditor, OIR Group, an outside police practices adviser for Anaheim since 2007.
Different oversight bodies for different cities vary in terms of their effectiveness.
Up north, the City of Berkeley has a police oversight panel with investigatory powers — as well as powers to issue subpoenas and get necessary information around a given incident.
Anaheim’s police review board has no subpoena powers.