Having one of the largest municipal fleets in the country has its advantages for the Los Angeles Police Department. But one of those vehicles costing someone their life is a tragic game changer. As the LA Times reports, the LAPD may want to rethink how it has its police copters respond to calls, as the noise from one cost a man his life.
The LAPD operates 18 helicopters in its fleet. Part of the department’s Air Support Division, these copters are patrolling the skies at any given time anywhere across the city. A call by an off-duty cop may have changed how the Air Support Division responds to calls
On July 26th, 2021, an off-duty cop on vacation from Texas called 911 saying there was a man on the street cutting himself with a knife. A few minutes later two officers, Ruben Mejia and Eduardo Martinez arrived on the scene. Body camera footage shows them drawing their weapons with one shouting, “Let me see your hands, bro!”
The man, who was later identified as Samuel Soto, instead charged at the officers. Martinez fired two shots, missing both times. He fired again, this time hitting Soto causing him and his knife to fall to the ground. Mejia kicked the knife away and radioed for help. This is where the problem comes in.
Rather than someone radioing back to Mejia asking if he needed air support, a nearby LAPD helicopter with the callsign Air 10 picked up his call. Air 10 arrived on the scene, hovering low over the street. By this time, Soto was trying to get back on his feet while the officers, joined by David Voci, told him to stop moving. Soto began trying to charge them once more. With the loud roar of the copter filling the air, Martinez yells and asks Meija if Soto was still armed. Mejia responded, per The Times, “No, no, no, he doesn’t have the knife! He doesn’t have the knife!”
Mejia told the same thing to Voci and his partner. But it didn’t matter. No one could make out what he was saying. The chopper noise was too loud due to how low it was hovering. Voci later told investigators he couldn’t really make out what Mejia was trying to say and that the only word he was able to make out was “knife.”
By this time, Soto was making his way toward Voci, who warned him to drop it before firing three shots into Soto. When he fell to the ground, they saw he was holding a cell phone. Soto died five months later from the gunshot wounds.
A report LAPD Chief Michel Moore sent to the civilian ran Police Commission found no wrongdoing on the part of the officers and said they acted within their right to use deadly force. But the report highlighted problems and left more questions than answers: Tasers weren’t used on Soto because the officers had no batteries for the ones they had, blame for which was placed on a battery shortage; Air 10 seemed to have arrived at the scene for no reason, with no evidence of it providing any support; and while officers are trained to deescalate these exact situations, there didn’t seem to be an attempt to even do that, the reasoning for which was the presence of Soto’s knife and him coming at officers.
This also isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 2007, LAPD officers violently broke up a protest at MacArthur Park after officers thought protestors ignored their calls to disperse. The helicopter on the scene kept protesting from hearing the disperse order before police took action.