The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A ‘perfect storm’ of factors led to fatal police shooting of a 14-year-old girl, experts say

The Los Angeles Police Department on Dec. 27 released video footage of a Dec. 23 shooting in which an officer killed a 14-year-old girl inside a dressing room. (Video: Los Angeles Police Department)
Placeholder while article actions load

The death of a teenage girl in a Los Angeles-area department store has ignited questions over a police officer’s decision to fire a rifle in a crowded public place while pursuing a suspect who did not have a gun.

While Valentina Orellana-Peralta, 14, and her mother, Soledad Peralta, were shopping Thursday for Christmas clothes, a man began assaulting other customers with a bike lock at a Burlington store in North Hollywood, Calif. When police intervened, the teenager was shot when a bullet pierced a dressing-room wall. She died in her mother’s arms.

“I had no idea she had been shot,” Peralta said in a statement. “Her body went limp. I tried to wake her up by shaking her, but she didn’t wake up.”

The Los Angeles Police Department on Monday released video footage that shows the teen girl was hit inside the store after an officer fired at the suspect, 24-year-old Daniel Elena Lopez, who also died.

Video showed that the officer who fired the fatal shots reached for a rifle with a magnifying optic — a choice that’s puzzled the public and law-enforcement professionals.

Experts’ reactions range from approval to condemnation. While some criticized the lethal force and choice of weapon used to confront a suspect who did not have a gun, others said police handled the situation correctly — albeit with a tragic result. The scrutiny underscores the difficult calculus for responding officers: Some 911 calls suggested Elena Lopez was an active shooter. The increasing frequency of those types of calls, and hindsight from such situations over the previous decades justify urgent action, some say. At the same time, renewed focus on police killings has drawn criticism of their tactics.

A use-of-force gray area

There’s no simple answer for which weapon an officer chooses, according to Michael Gennaco, a police practices professional who was once chief of the civil rights section at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California.

“There are no hard-and-fast rules,” he said, adding that officers are given a lot of discretion in how to respond to tactical situations. “When there is time to plan, ideally, you’d want to designate somebody as a lethal cover and have less-lethal ammunition available, like a Taser or bean bags. I didn’t see any deployment of those.”

Officers are trained to stop a threat or stop the force, leaving somewhat of a gray area for officers to choose what kind of force to use in different scenarios, Gennaco said.

The officer who released his deadly shots in the Burlington store reminded him of the 2014 case of Laquan McDonald, a Black 17-year-old who was killed while walking away from officers with a knife in hand. Released video showed Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke had escalated the situation with his first shot and then shot McDonald more times while he was on the ground. Van Dyke was sentenced to more than six years behind bars for the shooting.

Officials have not yet revealed the race and identity of the officer who fired the shots last week. He has been placed on paid leave pending a review.

“It’s become a situation where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” said Adam Bercovici, who is a retired police lieutenant from LAPD and expert witness. “After the Columbine and Parkland [school] shootings, there was a lot of criticism about police not acting quickly enough in these situations. But conversely, you also see a lot of criticism when police actually act quickly on the information they get.”

Teen died in mother’s arms after police bullet pierced store dressing room, family says

Lopez turned out to not be an active shooter, but a slew of emergency calls generated misinformation about the situation. One 911 call from a store employee described Lopez as a “hostile customer” who was going around the store, searching for people to attack with a bike lock. The caller said the man may have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Another caller said Lopez had a gun; others were unsure, according to the calls.

The combination of misinformation about the suspect’s weapon, the location of the crime scene and the officer’s handling of the situation created “a perfect storm” for a tragedy to unfold, said retired LAPD sergeant Cheryl Dorsey.

“It was just the worst scenario,” Dorsey said. “The suspect didn’t have a gun. He was positioned in front of a room that held a mom and her daughter, who were just trying to shelter in place. And then you’ve got this whack job with this rifle shooting rocket launchers. It was too much.”

Like Bercovici, Dorsey said police responded correctly to a quickly unfolding and fluid situation — especially as “they came in thinking it was an active shooter and the suspect had a weapon that was capable of causing significant bodily injury or death,” she said. However, she found fault with the officer wielding a rifle — and firing the three rounds that pierced through the dressing room’s wall and killed Orellana-Peralta.

“I think he was just a little too much,” she said. “I don’t think he was needed. I don’t think the long gun was needed in this situation. I see why they would want to have it there because you don’t know how many suspects there are. You don’t know what the suspect has. But he should not have been at the front of the line.”

Footage shows LAPD officer firing shots that killed a suspect and a teen girl in a dressing room

The body-cam footage released by LAPD shows the officer pushing ahead from the formation — which included other authorities flanking from different directions — as he says, “hey, slow down, slow down, let me take point with the rifle.” A woman, screaming and bloodied from her wounds, is seen crawling on the floor. For Bercovici, that officer leading the charge made sense, as he had the best and most accurate weapon and could neutralize the suspect the quickest.

“If you have information that indicates that the person may be armed with a firearm, you don’t want to go in hot necessarily,” Gennaco said. “You want to keep distance and keep cover, but that’s not what happened here. I do think the observation of the victim bleeding escalated the response of the police. I didn’t see any indication from other responding officers that they made an assessment on how she was injured.”

Timothy T. Williams, a retired senior detective supervisor at LAPD and use-of-force expert, also criticized the officer’s actions. Not only did he do “his own thing contrary to the unit,” but police should have taken a less-lethal approach, Williams said.

“You had an officer who was operating outside the unit’s integrity and just doing things on his own,” Williams said. “There were other officers with green guns that were less lethal. They should have deployed the less-lethal guard and tried to get the suspect into custody without causing any collateral damage or injuries and or death as what happened here.”

Rifles “can over-penetrate” and are not appropriate in a closed setting where other civilians are present, Williams said. LAPD declined to say what rifle was used or say what kinds of long guns it keeps in its inventory, but it appears to be an older-model M-16 rifle or an AR-15, a rifle modeled on the M-16.

The use of a rifle has generated criticism for another reason: Some speculate whether the 9mm handgun that is typically used by law enforcement would have been able to penetrate a wall and have enough energy to go through Orellana-Peralta’s body.

Without personally evaluating the width and material of the wall, the consulted experts said it was hard to tell. Pistol rounds can perforate surfaces such as drywall, but rifle rounds are bigger and travel much faster. A typical M-16 rifle round has a velocity of about 3,100 feet per second, according to military training documents, or roughly two and a half times faster than typical 9mm pistol rounds.

Many police units have been equipped with semiautomatic rifles during the past decades — weapons they usually carry in patrol cars when responding to active shootings. According to POLICE Magazine, criminals badly outgunning LAPD in a bungled 1997 bank robbery in North Hollywood brought about patrol rifles as tactical gear.

‘Warrior mindset’ police training proliferated. Then, high-profile deaths put it under scrutiny.

That episode — along with recurring shootings taking place everywhere from schools to grocery stores — profoundly shaped the way authorities respond to gun violence, Bercovici said. Before the influx of incidents, officers operated under “time, talk and tear gas,” he said — an “old way of thinking” referencing the prime objective of locating and contacting the suspect. But when shootings became more prevalent and police across the country were criticized for not acting quickly enough, high alert and high urgency became embedded into their response. The tactic shifted toward contacting the suspect, neutralizing the threat and stopping the danger to the public.

“We learned it doesn’t take a lot of time to kill a lot of people,” Bercovici said. “In this particular situation, it doesn’t make sense to ‘time, talk and tear gas’ somebody running around, bashing someone’s head or stabbing them, or shooting them. So you need to act on it, and you do the best that you can.”

The innocent life lost

Tom Saggau, a spokesperson and board member of the Los Angeles Police Protective League labor union, told The Washington Post earlier this week that the officer who fired the shots “is devastated for the outcome and for the family.”

Orellana-Peralta’s family has hired attorneys to seek justice for her death as they try to get through the holidays without her, attorney Ben Crump said at a Tuesday news conference.

The girl who dreamed of becoming an engineer and an American citizen had been excited about passing her math and physics exams before holiday break, her father said. She excelled in her English-speaking school even though she had been in the country for only about six months with Spanish as her mother tongue, her family shared.

Her father, who planned to visit California from Chile for the holidays, had plans of spending time with his only biological child and witnessing her enjoying her gift. He will now lay her gifts, including the skateboard she ordered from Amazon that arrived the day after her death, on her grave, he said, according to a translator.

“It is like my whole heart had been ripped out of my body,” he said in a statement read by his attorney, Crump, on Tuesday. “My daughter was special. She had dreams, and tragically those dreams have been overshadowed by this nightmare that has prevented me from sleeping at night.”

Read more:

Fifth victim dies after Denver-area shooting rampage. Officer who intervened may have saved lives.

She was arrested at a bar, then found hanging in a cell. Police haven’t given her family answers.

A Black teen died in custody while being restrained facedown. Now the prone position is again under fire.