California Attorney General Rob Bonta won’t charge the four Anaheim police officers who shot and killed the unarmed cousin of a Santa Ana City Council Member in 2021, saying there wasn’t enough evidence that officers didn’t fear imminent death or injury.
It’s Bonta’s fourth completed probe into local police department killings of unarmed civilians in California, under a 2021 law that promised a new AG task force would bring more accountability to such incidents.
Although the latest report raises some questions about Anaheim officers’ actions that year, it’s the fourth time that Bonta’s task force has cleared police of criminal culpability across the state.
Families affected by Bonta’s probes are wondering what purpose they serve when the outcomes are the same, aside from taking months and even years to conduct and, as a result, stalling victims’ families in their pursuit of civil lawsuits.
That now includes the family of Brandon Lopez, who Anaheim and Santa Ana officers falsely believed had a gun while barricaded in a car he allegedly stole from his girlfriend’s sister, following a street pursuit that ended in a Santa Ana construction zone two years ago.
Police forced Lopez – the cousin of Council Member Johnathan Ryan Hernandez – out of the car with a flash bang that night in late September 2021.
After Lopez ran out of the vehicle, Anaheim SWAT officers Brett Heitmann, Catalin Panov, Kenneth Weber, and Paul Delgado shot Lopez a total of 18 times, according to the AG report.
What officers believed to be a gun was actually a black “GUESS” drawstring bag containing a water bottle.
“It took two-and-a-half years for AG Bonta to decide that neither the Anaheim Police Dept. nor the Santa Ana Police Dept. were going to be held accountable for their actions in Brandon’s murder,” said Lopez’s mother, Johanna Lopez, in an interview on Wednesday.
AG Raises Questions
“We never want to see any loss of life and continue to extend our thoughts to the family, our Santa Ana colleagues, the officers involved and all reliving this incident,” said Anaheim City Hall spokesperson Mike Lyster, in a Wednesday emailed response to Bonta’s determination.
“We welcome the report’s confirmation that our officers acted lawfully and with intent to protect themselves and the public.”
Yet Bonta’s report seriously questioned police officers’ handling of the incident.
Namely, the report questioned officers’ use of the flash bang to force him from his car, as well as the five minutes it took for officers to render aid from the time he was first shot.
The report also questions why officers fired a non-lethal round into Lopez – despite him no longer resisting – after the initial fatal gunshots.
“APD should have first assessed whether he was able to respond to commands before deploying further force,” the report reads.
Lyster said Anaheim police undergo “constant evaluation and will look at the report’s recommendations in the days ahead as part of an ongoing internal review of this incident.”
In the days and months following Lopez’s killing, family members – including Lopez’s cousin, Santa Ana Councilmember Hernandez – said repeatedly that Lopez was in the midst of a mental health crisis, and that they tried to make officers aware of it on the scene the night of his death.
The AG report says police were told by a family member that Lopez intended on “suicide by cop.”
It also describes an interview with Lopez’s girlfriend at the time, who told Santa Ana investigators that Lopez struggled with drugs and sought clinical help for his depression and stress.
She also told investigators that Lopez attempted to overdose a few days before his death, according to the report.
After the two got into an argument on Sept. 28, the day of Lopez’s death, she said Lopez took the keys to her sister’s Black Dodge charger while high. Later, Lopez led police on a stolen vehicle pursuit.
Lopez’s girlfriend, the report says, “shared that [Lopez] had confided to her that he was tired, and he did not know why he could not go back to being sober. He described his struggle with addiction and strained familial relationships.”
While the AG’s probes are meant to bridge the community and law enforcement, Johanna Lopez called Bonta’s latest report “even more angering.”
“The other three reports Bonta has released have been synonymous, and the California Dept. of Justice is not holding law enforcement agencies accountable when they could have avoided these deaths,” she said.
Before the shooting, at approximately 6:09 p.m. on Sept. 28, 2021, Santa Ana police officer Nelson Menendez reported over the police radio that Lopez had a gun in his right hand, based on observations relayed to him by officer Kenney Aguilar, according to the report.
In an interview with state investigators, as described in Bonta’s report, Delgado echoed other officers in saying he believed that once Lopez fled the vehicle, “his ‘partner’s lives were in danger, my life was in danger, and I needed to stop the imminent threat.’”
“Investigator Delgado believed that there were many opportunities for Mr. Lopez to flee, but he instead chose to run towards officers,” the report reads.
The report’s conclusion:
“The evidence does not show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Officer Heitmann, Officer Panov, Officer Weber, and Investigator Delgado acted without the intent to defend themselves and others from what they reasonably believed to be imminent death or serious bodily injury. Therefore, there is insufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution of the officers.”
Johanna Lopez questions the purpose behind Bonta’s police shootings initiative.
“It’s clearly not for those who want clarity and law enforcement agencies to be held responsible. I’m perplexed, I’m very frustrated with the duration it took to not find Anaheim culpable,” Lopez said. “Yet you see quite serious recommendations in the report.”
She said Bonta’s four investigatory conclusions so far don’t satisfy victims’ families, and that it only delays their ability to push for civil remedies in the courts. She added her family has a pending trial date in their lawsuit against Anaheim for May of 2024.
Police departments will often cite a case’s ‘under investigation’ status in denying relevant records requested by the public.
“We can’t even move forward on aspects of our life because everything hinges on what the DOJ will say, and where do we chart our legal recourse?” Lopez said. “Everything hangs on that balance. We can’t move spiritually, mentally or physically because we’re still reeling from the trauma of his death.”
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