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HomeUS NewsFamily of man in 'happy hunting' shooting sues LAPD

Family of man in ‘happy hunting’ shooting sues LAPD

The family of a man who was shot to death by Los Angeles police snipers during an armed standoff last spring is suing the city of L.A., alleging officers were encouraged to use force by a colleague who told them “happy hunting” before the shooting.

The lawsuit, filed this week in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claims officers could have done more to deescalate the encounter before opening fire on 54-year-old Leron James, who, despite being armed and barricading himself in a downtown L.A. apartment building, wasn’t a danger to anyone else.

A department review board previously found that the two SWAT snipers’ use of deadly force in the May 2022 incident was within policy. The department board did, however, take issue with some of the tactics used by the two officers, Howard Ng and Joseph Dominguez, leading up to the shooting.

The suit comes on the heels of reporting by The Times into explosive allegations by a former SWAT sergeant, who maintains that the elite unit operates under a “culture of violence” driven by a group of influential members known as the “SWAT Mafia.”

A lawsuit brought in 2020 by former Sgt. Tim Colomey alleged that certain problematic members of SWAT “glamorize the use of lethal force” and ensured that officers who “share the same values” are promoted in the unit, while commanders turn a “blind eye” to the problems.

On the day of the incident, James reportedly called 911 after he ingested methamphetamine. He later became combative with firefighters who responded to the scene.

Police say James let off a single shot from a window at officers and bystanders on the street below, prompting Ng and Dominguez to open fire, killing him.

The incident cast a harsh spotlight on SWAT, after one of the unit’s members, Leon Maya, was captured on a body camera video telling other officers who were preparing to confront the barricaded James, “happy hunting.” The episode was seized on by department critics, who said it reflected a culture of brutality and callousness within SWAT.

Department officials have said the remark was caught on the body camera of another officer who happened to be walking past and was discovered during a subsequent review of video from the incident.

According to a report for Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore, Ng was walking up when Maya made the comment.

Maya, who had his own body camera turned off until about an hour after the incident, received a two-day suspension for the comment, LAPD disciplinary records show. Citing state privacy laws, the department has not publicly identified Maya, but his name is listed in an internal report.

“The family was outraged when it learned about the conversations that were held private prior to this shooting,” said attorney Carl Douglas, who filed the suit on the family’s behalf. “Justice demands a full exploration of the facts and circumstances of this tragic death.”

The LAPD and the city attorney’s office each declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.

Negotiators tried to persuade James to turn himself in by appealing to his concern for the safety of his dog, Dougie. A robot was sent into the apartment to communicate with James. When he didn’t respond, officers fired gas canisters into the apartment.

Instead of leaving the department, a gasping James was seen opening a window before pulling out a handgun and letting off a shot indiscriminately toward the street below. No one was injured.

Ng and Dominguez had been watching James’ actions from their perch in a seventh-story apartment in a nearby building, according to the report. Roughly 26 feet separated them from James.

The review board found Ng and Dominguez were justified in using deadly force against James, after he fired a gun out of the apartment window. But the board faulted the officers for several tactical missteps.

Ideally, one officer would be the designated shooter, while the other played the role of spotter, passing along details about what was happening in the apartment below to avoid the “simultaneous discharge of their rifles,” the board said.

Instead, officers each fired a single shot at James. The board also faulted Dominguez for removing his body armor before taking a shot. Ng’s decision to cross in front of his partner’s rifle several times was a “substantial deviation” from policy, the board ruled.

Dominguez told department investigators in an interview that he shot James after he saw the man fire a shot, knowing that there were “people walking around” in the street below.

“Also, in the area of — the studio, there was people that are actually living in the storefronts that are there. In the event to the defense of their lives, of police officers’ lives and the innocent bystanders that were there, I felt that the suspect was posing a deadly threat, so I fired one round at the suspect while he was there firing with the pistol,” Dominguez said, according to snippets of the interview that were included in the report.

Ng and Dominguez were ordered to attend a training session in May 2022 that covered such topics as communication, body camera use and firearms tactics.

Moore said after the James shooting that he was disturbed by the “happy hunting” comment, but he denied the SWAT Mafia claims alleged in the lawsuit. Moore said at the time that the unit’s members have consistently shown restraint and skill while handling difficult and dangerous situations.

Moore later ordered a 10-year review of the unit’s operations to determine whether “any potential problems or patterns” existed in how its members used force. The controversial report, published last July, concluded that there was no culture of violence within the unit. It said SWAT officers used force in only a small fraction of deployments between 2012 and 2022; no force was used in 1,245 of the 1,350 incidents, the report found.

Police Commission President William Briggs asked about the “happy hunting” comment at a recent meeting of the civilian-run body that oversees the department.

“I wanna ask you whether or not that terminology is the ethos of SWAT when they approach barricaded suspects,” Briggs asked a supervisor with Metropolitan Division, which includes SWAT.

No, said Capt. Mario Mota, adding that he was the one who first noticed the comment while reviewing an officer’s body camera video. He “immediately took action,” Mota said.

“That is not the reputation and that is not my expectation,” Mota said. The officer who made the comment was immediately removed from his cadre, he said.

Mota said SWAT’s culture “constantly evolved” over its history. Presently, he said, the unit has about 70 officers, who are “highly professional and dedicated to what they do.”

“They all take every incident personal,” Mota said. He pointed out that the SWAT team has not shot anyone or employed certain less serious force so far this year.

“That is what we portray day in and day out and carry out, not that ‘happy hunting’ [comment],” Mota said.



This story originally appeared on LA Times

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