A death and lawsuit bring more scrutiny to timing in LAPD shootings

When Alan Castellanos, knife in hand, approached a team of Los Angeles police officers one afternoon in April, they appeared ready to stop him without using deadly force.

Two officers had trained tasers on Castellanos, another had a beanbag shotgun aimed at him, and a fourth was armed with a 40-millimeter (1.5 in) rigid-foam projectile launcher.

But within seconds, Castellanos was on the ground with a fatal gunshot wound to the abdomen after a fifth officer shot him with his pistol while another used a taser.

For the family of Castellanos, the murder was incomprehensible – and inexcusable.

“You’re overreacting. They’re not planning anything,” Castellanos’ sister Cristian Mendoza said of the officers involved. “It seems they don’t care about human lives.”

“Obviously the LAPD didn’t do their job properly. There could have been a better result,” said Castellanos’ wife, Nailea Vera Castellanos. “And it’s not the first time it’s happened.”

Nailea Vera Castellanos, wife of Alan Castellanos, with their son

Nailea Vera Castellanos, wife of Alan Castellanos, with their son.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

According to a recent Times investigation, the Castellanos shooting was at least the eighth in the past two years in which groups of officers simultaneously fired handguns and weapons designed to avoid killing, such as projectile launchers and tasers.

In each incident, the person shot was armed with a knife or other sharp or blunt object, not a gun. In many cases they appeared to be mentally ill.

The shootings have sparked increasing concern from LAPD officers, who said they are working to address the problem by retraining officers to withhold the use of deadly force, where possible, until less lethal options have been tried.

And shooting survivors and families of those killed have filed lawsuits challenging the actions of LAPD officers in such shootings. The decision to fire bullets before giving tasers or non-lethal projectiles a chance to subdue a suspect is evidence of excessive force and poor oversight by the department, the lawsuits allege.

Last month, a federal judge ruled that an LAPD officer was personally liable for violating the rights of a homeless man when he shot the man on the street in Venice in 2019, despite being surrounded by other officers armed with less deadly weapons.

US District Court Judge Dolly Gee found Officer Jonathan Concetti responsible for excessive force, assault, assault and negligence in the shooting dead of John Penny, who was wounded in the Venice shooting but survived. Penny appeared to be in mental distress at the time, holding a wooden plank and moving erratically through an alleyway.

Gee issued her summary judgment judgment early in the trial. She dismissed Concetti’s claim that the controversial legal doctrine known as qualified immunity protected him from personal liability for workplace acts.

Gee concluded that Penny had committed no crime, attempted to escape, assaulted none of the officers at the scene, and caused no “immediate harm” to Concetti when the officer fired.

She also found that a supervisor had ordered the use of less-lethal weapons available at the scene and that officers had failed to warn Penny that he might be shot.

Gee also noted that a large number of officers were present, vastly outnumbering Penny.

Based on those factors, Gee concluded that Penny “holding a plank of wood and refusing to drop it” was no justification for Concetti shooting him. The officer violated Penny’s constitutional rights, she said.

Concetti appealed the decision to the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week. His lawyers declined to comment, as did prosecutors. A separate decision by Gee regarding the actions of Concetti’s supervisor will also be appealed, while claims against other officers involved will be brought to trial.

Shaleen Shanbhag, one of Penny’s attorneys, said the ruling was an “unprecedented” victory for victims of police shootings and should be taken as a warning to both the LAPD and individual officers that while each case is unique, the use of deadly force is over is Less lethal options are under scrutiny.

Denisse Gastélum, an attorney for the Castellanos family, said she is studying the ruling in the Penny case closely as she and the family consider filing a lawsuit of their own against the city.

“What’s the less deadly thing for? To the show? For appeasement? For some kind of tick? Because there’s obviously no communication,” Gastélum said of using the less lethal weapons first. “These less-lethal weapons are designed for control. Firearms are designed to kill. You use them at the exact same time, what will happen? You will kill.”

LAPD identified the officer who shot Castellanos as James Galbraith. Dave Winslow, the officer’s attorney, said Galbraith “had no choice but to shoot” after Castellanos quickly moved in on him and his colleagues at point-blank range.

“If he hadn’t shot at that moment, he could have been stabbed, injured or killed,” Winslow said.

Winslow said the fact that officers were simultaneously using less lethal and lethal force was “not a failure of the officers’ design, but a “failure of policy” by the LAPD — preventing officers from shooting people with less-lethal weapons unless they pose an “imminent threat of violence or physical harm” to officers.

That’s essentially the same standard that applies to the use of deadly force, Winslow said.

There were a few moments just before the shooting when Castellanos was farther from officers — and not as immediately a threat — when it would have been “a perfect time” to hit him with projectiles or tasers, Winslow said. However, doing so would have violated LAPD guidelines, he said.

“The policy needs to change to allow officers more discretion to be less lethal before lethal is required,” Winslow said.

LAPD officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The shooting is still under investigation and has yet to be brought before the LA Civilian Police Commission, which will rule on whether the actions of the officers involved violated department guidelines.

On a recent afternoon, the Castellanos family members gathered on a couch around a wide coffee table, where they spread out photos of Castellanos, who described them as a doting son, a good husband, a loving father, and a goofy brother and uncle.

Castellanos worked in construction. He was trying to save money for his daughter’s quinceañera, and he liked to joke with his family members. He helped the family get through the recent death of their eldest sister from cancer.

Mendoza, Castellanos’ sister, said the family still didn’t know what was going on with her brother on the day he was shot when a woman at an apartment called 911 to say a man was outside the window struck and threatened her. But clearly “he was going through some sort of nervous breakdown,” she said.

Cristian Mendoza cries as she discusses the life of her brother Alan Castellanos, who was fatally shot by the LAPD

Cristian Mendoza cries while speaking about her brother Alan Castellanos, who was fatally shot by the LAPD on April 6 with a knife in his hand.

(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

She expressed dismay that such a result could be acceptable in a city as large as LA, where police often encounter the mentally ill.

“This time it was us and it has to stop here. Next time it could be someone else’s family,” Mendoza said. “We shouldn’t worry about who’s next. That should not be a concern that anyone should have.”

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-06-08/family-of-jesus-castellanos-who-was-fatally-shot-by-lapd-officers-speak-out A death and lawsuit bring more scrutiny to timing in LAPD shootings

Alley Einstein

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