Once Again, the Los Angeles Times Tries to Concoct a Scandal From a Lawful Police Shooting

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Once again, we turn to what has been and will continue to be an endless source of material for me columns. This is the Los Angeles Times’ practice of trying to create a scandal out of a lawful and justified police shooting. This latest example appears in Thursday’s print issue. It has the headline “Footage casts doubt upon LAPD claims.” The subheadline reads: “Police claimed Marvin Cua pointed his gun at officers. Video shows him fleeing. The sensational headline, and the placement of the story on the frontpage — above the fold — indicate that the Times considers this a Very Important Story.

The paper follows a formulaic approach to reporting on such cases. The headline suggests something sinister, followed by the reportage which omits details about the victim’s criminal past, presents the victim in a positive light and puts him on the verge of great accomplishments. Finally, the story includes the opinions of an academic who claims to be an expert but has no actual experience.

The LAPD received a 911 report reporting that a man was spray-painting graffiti with gang gang colors and pointed a gun at children in 700 block of South Berendo Street. This is approximately two and a quarter miles west of downtown Los Angeles. Marvin Cua (23), was seen walking along with another man on East Berendo by uniformed officers riding in a police car. The passenger officer is seen getting out of the police car and telling both men to stop. Cua refuses to comply and runs south on Berendo, while carrying a gun. Cua is nearing the parking lot at 8th Street and Berendo streets. An officer fires one round and strikes Cua. Cua runs, but soon falls to the ground in the parking lot. Officers render first aid, including CPR. However, paramedics arrive to discover that Cua has died.

The Times attempts to stir controversy by pointing out in the LAPD Video Presentation on the shooting that was made by the Media Relations Division that Cua “removed his waistband and pointed it in the direction officers”.

This is true to a certain extent, however, the captain didn’t claim that the video of Cua wielding the weapon showed Cua. The assertion of the captain could have been derived either from statements made by officers or other witnesses or sources that were not mentioned in the presentation. While body-worn cameras are useful in some situations, they have their limitations in the Cua shooting. The officer may not perceive everything captured on the camera.

The LAPD video shows the officers “code six” – i.e. at the scene and investigating the possible suspect in the radio call at 4:46. At 4:59, the shot is fired. Cua may have fired his gun at officers during the thirteen second delay.

In any case, it doesn’t matter if Cua pointed the gun at officers. Yes, if Cua had been seen on video pointing his gun at officers, that would have added justification for the shooting. However, the officer was justified firing even though Cua wasn’t pointing it at them.

Cua was reported as having pointed his gun at children in the vicinity. When confronted by police, he decided to not surrender the weapon or surrender to them but to keep it and run in densely populated areas. An officer should assume that a suspect fleeing from police will take his weapon and use it against him or another person if given the chance.

The Times also claims that the shooting was justified because the officer fired without warning. But, as the reporter should be aware, California does not require a warning in these circumstances. California Penal Code section 835a (c)(1)(B), states that an officer can use deadly force to apprehend a fleeing individual for any felony that threatens or results in death or serious injury, if they reasonably believe that the person will cause serious bodily harm or death unless the officer is immediately apprehended. “Wherever possible, a peace officers shall make reasonable efforts to identify themselves and warn that deadly force might be used.

The officers in uniform were driving marked cars in daylight when they were involved in the Cua shooting. Cua was certain that the officers were police officers. He knew that he would be shot if Cua didn’t surrender and drop his gun. Cua made his own choices and the police can’t be held responsible.

We are presented with a sympathetic image of the victim following the Times’s formula. This one was provided by Margaret Hellerstein who is an immigration lawyer and represented Cua in his asylum request. She said that Cua was an extraordinarily gifted artist. He was kind, soft-spoken, generous, and funny. Although he was not a saint, he had a big heart. He was someone I truly loved.”

Cua’s admission that he “wasn’t a saint” is, of course, an acknowledgement of his criminal past, which the Times was not sufficiently curious to report. His asylum application, his legitimacy, and his current immigration status remain unexplored. The reporter didn’t get Hellerstein’s opinion about why the soft-spoken and generous, funny, gifted artist might have requested the police response by pointing the gun at children that day.

A L.A. Times article about a police shooting wouldn’t be complete without an opinion from a college professor. Even if his expertise isn’t relevant to the issue at hand, The Times consulted William Terrill, whose name is misspelled as Terrell. Terrill is an associate dean and professor at Arizona State University. His C.V. shows a lot of academic research about police use of force, but not much to indicate any practical experience in this field.

According to the Times, Terrill asked if the officers could have used a different approach that didn’t seem to escalate the situation.

Marvin Cua, like nearly all those who were shot by police, died from a series bad decisions that the officers could not change. He brought down his own death, no matter what his artistic merits, and regardless of how loved he was to others. California law requires that the shooting be done in a reasonable and timely manner. Nothing that appears in Los Angeles Times will change this.