Two years after Anaheim police shot and killed their loved one, a Santa Ana family is calling attention to the way state investigations of local law enforcement shootings prevent families from pushing forward with lawsuits for their own sense of justice.
And at a Thursday demonstration at the steps of Anaheim City Hall, one member of that family – a Santa Ana elected official – went as far as accusing California Attorney General Rob Bonta of “sitting” on the police shooting death case of his cousin, Brandon Lopez.
“You’ve been sitting on this case for two years,” said Santa Ana City Councilmmeber Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, speaking into the microphone before a crowd of supporters and journalists.
That frustration appears to be tracking across the state, whose chief law enforcement officer, Bonta, faces questions about taking too long to probe police shooting deaths of unarmed people, after a 2021 California law put such investigations under his office’s charge.
The result has been years of pending probes, and few issued reports – which for families can mean delays to pursuing civil lawsuits through the courts, because police can cite Bonta’s ongoing investigations in withholding access to police documents and records.
But it hasn’t stopped Lopez’s family, which filed a federal civil lawsuit seeking damages from the cities of Santa Ana and Anaheim over his death. Last month, a judge dismissed the City of Santa Ana and police chief David Valentin from the lawsuit.
The family’s attorney, DeWitt Lacy, said the new investigation process under Bonta’s office effectively thwarts public access to police violence records.
“Families a lot of the time don’t know the names of officers … families may not even know the circumstances beyond speculation about why their loved one is dead and law enforcement usually doesn’t offer up any good excuses,” Lacy said in a Monday phone interview. “This is the state taking someone’s life, and families deserve answers when that happens. “
At Anaheim City Hall on Thursday, members of Lopez’s family took the microphone to demand answers as to why the 34-year-old father of four was shot 22 times in Santa Ana by Anaheim police in 2021, despite Lopez being unarmed and forced out of his car with a flashbang.
The shooting death happened after a stolen vehicle pursuit that ended at a Santa Ana construction site. Anaheim authorities, in a public video about the incident, said they mistook an empty water bottle in Lopez’s bag for a gun.
Hernandez and Lopez’s family watched the shooting unfold at the scene, and officer-worn body camera footage showed Hernandez attempting to inform police officers that Lopez was having a mental health crisis, to which one Santa Ana police officer told him that night: “People kill people every day.”
“Do the right thing, and file charges,” Hernandez said in remarks aimed at Bonta on Thursday.
Much of Thursday’s frustration focused on Assembly Bill 1506, a California law that passed in 2021 – on the heels of national anger over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd – in which the state Justice Department would step in and investigate when local police kill unarmed people.
The very lawmaker who championed the bill in the legislature – Bonta – now heads up the office charged with overseeing those investigations.
But a majority of cases the Justice Department has opened remain pending, with cases from as early as 2021, Lopez’s included, still listed as “under investigation” on the Attorney General webpage for AB 1506 shootings.
And since 2021, Bonta’s office has issued reports for just three cases under the new law.
All of them determined that officers’ use of lethal force was justified.
A request for comment from Bonta’s office went unreturned on Monday.
Kimberly Edds, a spokesperson for District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who typically reviews fatal shootings by local law enforcement, responded to requests for comment with the following text message:
“That is being handled by the AG.”
It’s led Lopez’s mother, Johanna Lopez, to question:
“What’s the point of having such an assembly bill in place? What was the purpose?”
She said other families waiting for Bonta’s probes to conclude are “waiting in vain.”
Johanna Lopez questions why the investigations are taking so long given Bonta’s much-publicized effort to put together a “full guidance package” on protocols and standards for the state investigations, part of what he called a way to build back trust between communities and law enforcement.
“It’s not serving families in any way shape or form to be able to move forward with their lawsuits, or even to move forward in life, to put to bed how they lost their loved ones,” Lopez said.
“It doesn’t serve anybody.”
Family members on Thursday were joined by other police violence protesters in OC, such as Anaheim resident Donna Acevedo Nelson – whose son, Joel, was slain during back-to-back police shootings of Latinos that sparked riots and political change in 2012 – and Bill Brown, a Fullerton resident who joined neighbors in protesting the Fullerton police killing of Hector Hernandez at his home in 2020.
Also in attendance was the family’s attorney, Lacy, of Burris Nisenbaum Curry & Lacy, a law firm that focuses on police misconduct cases and has won millions in settlements from cities like Santa Clara, Torrance and Antioch.
Lacy called Lopez’s shooting somewhat unique from other cases, in the sense that “not many of those situations have both parents present at the time when their loved ones are killed”.
“We don’t believe the killing was justified at all,” Lacy said, emphasizing that Lopez was unarmed. “These officers shot and killed Brandon with a hail of 22 bullets. That’s called unconstitutional. That’s called excessive force. And it’s a wrongful death.”
It’s not the first time the family’s tried to call attention to their unresolved questions, holding a similar type of demonstration last September.
Some things, however, were different this time around.
Both police chiefs in office at the time of Lopez’s shooting have since announced their departures.
Santa Ana’s police chief, David Valentin, announced his retirement one day before the demonstration.
Valentin’s departure comes amidst a tumultuous public battle with the former head of the city’s police union, Gerry Serrano, who mounted a controversial quest for a public pension through lawsuits alleging impropriety against City Hall officials who stood in his way.
During his quest for a pension boost, Serrano focused on the Lopez shooting to fuel questions over Valentin’s leadership.
Meanwhile, the Anaheim police chief who Lopez’s killing happened under, Jorge Cisneros, announced his retirement earlier this year.
And just weeks before the City Hall protest, a judge dismissed Santa Ana’s police chief – and also the city itself – from the Lopez family’s civil lawsuit over the shooting, leaving the City of Anaheim as the remaining plaintiff.
Santa Ana City Hall is in the midst of the heightened turmoil over recent years. Dueling ethics complaints are currently pending between Hernandez, a police union critic, and Mayor Valerie Amezcua, who was elected with the police union’s endorsement.
On Thursday, Hernandez again accused Amezcua of attempting to use Lopez’s death to convince Hernandez to oppose Valentin and current department leadership, amidst an apparent loyalty battle between the chief and former cop union president.
Meanwhile, a recall campaign funded by $371,000 in police union money threatens to unseat another vocal police union critic, Councilmember Jessie Lopez, in a special recall election this November.
“We do believe that the officers who killed Brandon Lopez should be arrested, and that they should be charged,” said Hernandez, questioning his community’s support for Bonta’s political prospects over how long the AB 1506 investigations have taken.
“If you have any plans to continue to represent us in the State of California, if you have any plans to run for governor, you’re going to need Orange County. And … we will challenge your name when it comes here.”
Through a microphone, he told Bonta:
“Do the right thing, file charges and hold killer cops accountable, just as you just as you said you would do”