News & Politics

Was Fatal LAPD Shooting of 14-Year Old Jesse Romero Justified?

Shutterstock photo of a police chase.

Jesse Romero was “a good boy,” his mother informs us, a boy with “many dreams.” Then how, we are left to ask, did he come to be shot and killed by the police on a Los Angeles sidewalk nearly two years ago? A reasonable inference from the evidence is that Romero was perhaps not as good as his mother would have us believe.

The circumstances of Romero’s death are described in reports issued by the Los Angeles police commission and the D.A.’s office, but I’ll summarize them here as follows: In the early evening of August 9, 2016, the LAPD received a 911 call regarding vandalism suspects at 248 North Chicago Street, in the Boyle Heights area of L.A.’s eastside. The address is a two-story apartment building just up the street from the LAPD’s Hollenbeck Station, and is well known to the officers assigned there as a hangout for the Tiny Boys street gang, whose graffiti has for many years marred the walls in the neighborhood. (In this Google street-view image of the building, apparently taken soon after a graffiti clean-up effort, you can see a young woman on the building’s front steps making gang signs at the passing Google-mobile. This video, a portion of which shows the building in question, provides an introduction to the gang.)

Two uniformed officers assigned to the Hollenbeck Gang Enforcement Unit responded to the call and entered the building from the street side. After activating their body-worn cameras, they walked down the central hallway on the first floor and saw, through the metal-mesh rear door, the suspects described in the radio call. As the officers came through the door, two boys began running along the south side of the building. (In the officers’ camera footage, gang graffiti can be seen on the walls and trash containers behind the building.) When the suspects reached the street, one turned left and ran south on Chicago Street, the other, the ill-fated Jesse Romero, ran north.

As he ran, Romero was clutching the front of his waistband, a telltale sign of someone who doesn’t want to drop an improperly secured handgun. Seeing this, the officers chose to pursue Romero. They chased him up to Cesar Chavez Avenue and then over to Breed Street, where Romero turned south. As the officers neared the corner, they heard a gunshot. One officer looked around the corner and fired two shots from his handgun, both of them striking Romero, who died at the scene. A .22 caliber revolver with one expended casing and eight live rounds was found near Romero on the opposite side of a metal fence.

Distilled to its essence, it’s a simple case: Officers respond to a radio call of vandalism suspects, discover gang tagging in progress, chase one of the suspects who turned out to be armed. The suspect fires a shot at the officers, one of whom returns fire and kills him.

But in these times there is no such thing as a simple case involving a police shooting. It was soon discovered that Romero was just 14 years old, amplifying the tragedy of his death but in no way altering the legality or propriety of the officers’ actions.

As one might have predicted, Romero’s parents have filed a lawsuit against the LAPD, and on Tuesday their attorney, Humberto Guizar, released the body-worn camera footage with the apparent aim of nudging the city toward a settlement or influencing the jury pool should a trial actually take place. Guizar argues that the video proves Romero had discarded the gun before he was shot. “The video shows that when the officer fired at the kid, he fired at him when he wasn’t a threat,” Guizar said. “He didn’t have a gun in his hand, and he killed him.”

Unfortunately for Guizar and his clients, the video proves no such thing. What it does prove is that Romero ran from the officers and ignored orders to stop. It also proves that a shot was fired from around the corner where Romero was last seen, and that a gun was found nearby after he fell wounded. It does not show what Romero was doing at the time he was shot, demonstrating one of the limitations of body-worn cameras.

The cameras are typically worn on an officer’s chest, as was the case here, and may not capture what an officer sees at any given moment. This is especially true during a shooting, when an officer may be peering around a corner, as the officer did here, or firing from behind cover. In this instance, the shooting officer’s camera was pointed at a wall when he fired.

Witnesses to the shooting offered conflicting accounts, with some saying Romero did not fire the gun but rather threw it away before being shot, while another said he did indeed fire toward the pursuing officers. Understandably, Romero’s parents and their attorney prefer to believe the first account, and they argue that the gun discharged accidentally when Romero dropped it.

There are several reasons to disbelieve this theory. During my career with the LAPD I was in many foot pursuits under similar circumstances, though I’m grateful they all ended more peacefully than this one. It is most often the case that when someone with a gun is suddenly confronted by the police, he will run while looking for the first opportunity to throw the gun somewhere where he hopes the police won’t find it.

But Romero, in running from the back of the apartment building, up Chicago Street, along Cesar Chavez Avenue, and then down Breed Street, covered almost 1,000 feet, along which there were any number of spots he might have tossed the gun where it might have gone undiscovered or carried away by a fellow gang member or some other sympathetic passerby (yes, this happens). But attorney Guizar makes the fanciful claim that Romero carried the gun all that distance only to toss it over a fence where it would remain visible to anyone on the sidewalk nearby. The more reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that Romero kept the gun for the duration of the foot pursuit because he planned to use it against the police officers who were chasing him. Expecting the officers to round the corner at a sprint, he tried to ambush them. Instead, the officers paused before turning the corner, enough time to see Romero pointing the gun and reacting as the law allows and common sense demands.

The city should not settle this case, nor should any jury award these plaintiffs so much as a nickel. Jesse Romero was not a “good boy” as his mother claims. He was a criminal. Yes, he was only 14, but he tried to shoot two police officers and might have done so had the officers not been cautious. He was old enough to know the game. He gambled and lost.

Yes, Jesse Romero was just 14, but he knew the game. He played and lost.