Health

Teen who sought new life found death at hands of police, father says

In the days leading up to Christmas,
14-year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta talked about her life with her father,
who had been planning to visit from Chile for the holiday. She wanted to take
him to a Los Angeles Lakers game to see LeBron James play. She had ordered a
skateboard and wanted to head back to school with moves to show off.

On their way to a Burlington store in the San
Fernando Valley on Thursday to shop for a Christmas dress, Orellana-Peralta
talked to her mother about her bigger dreams, too — of attending college. Above
all, the teen longed to become a US citizen.

But it was in the United States that those
dreams were cut short, Orellana-Peralta’s parents said through tears Tuesday,
their voices disintegrating into sobs at a news conference outside the
headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department.

In what authorities have described as a
horrific mistake, Orellana-Peralta was killed by a police bullet that
ricocheted off the floor of the store in North Hollywood as an officer opened
fire at Daniel Elena Lopez, 24. Elena Lopez, surveillance footage showed, had
been attacking shoppers with a bike lock before police arrived.

“This is what my daughter found here: death,”
said Juan Pablo Orellana Larenas, her father, flanked by the family’s
attorneys, led by Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who has represented the
families of high-profile victims of police killings around the country,
including George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Soledad Peralta, Orellana-Peralta’s mother,
recounted how she had been trying on clothes with her daughter in a dressing
room as a commotion started outside. They stayed there to hide. Her daughter,
she recalled, locked the door to protect them both.

As the loud noises continued outside, they
huddled together and prayed. Then suddenly, Peralta recalled, they were both
knocked to the ground in what felt like an explosion. She saw her daughter’s
limp body on the floor and began screaming for help — a chilling sound that was
audible in officers’ body camera videos of the incident. The girl died in her
mother’s arms.

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When police officers entered the room, Peralta
said, they forced her to leave her daughter’s side.

“She meant the world to me, her family, her
friends, her classmates,” she said. “Now our sweet angel is gone forever.”

The case has struck a nerve in Los Angeles,
where debates over criminal justice reform and police accountability have raged
for years, even before tens of thousands of Angelenos poured into the city’s
streets during last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, spurred by the
killing of Floyd by a police officer who was later convicted of murder. The
anguish has also been fueled by a continuing string of police shootings across
California.

Family members at the news conference wore
signs around their necks that read “Justice for Valentina,” and local activists
stood by, wearing shirts that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the
police.” As the news conference came to a close, some lifted their fists and
chanted, “Valentina’s life mattered.”

Many police critics have expressed outrage
over aspects of the shooting — the speed with which an officer opened fire on
Elena Lopez although he did not have a gun, the fact that police officers did
not ensure that the area was clear of bystanders.

“You guys don’t have the ability to just
tackle him to the floor?” said Chloe Cheyenne Rogers, an activist who started
the Justice for Valentina petition, which has nearly 5,000 signatures. “You
can’t use any parts of your training to be able to take that person in a way
that doesn’t include your assault rifle?”

Although the police department has not yet
confirmed the officer’s identity, activists were sharing what they believed was
his name and badge number on social media based on the released body camera
footage.

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Rogers, who shared the information on her own
Instagram account, said she did so to make sure that the officer was “not being
protected, or sheltered, by the LAPD.”

In the footage, released Monday as part of a
35-minute compilation that also included 911 calls and security video of the
incident, an officer with a rifle asks his colleagues to slow down so that he
can lead in their search for the man who had been attacking patrons.

“Let me take point with the rifle,” he says.

The situation seems to escalate when officers
encounter a woman with a bloodied face and they begin shouting. “Slow it down!”
one officer calls out, and then: “Hold up! Hold up!”

But almost instantaneously after Elena Lopez
becomes visible around a corner of an aisle, the officer with the rifle opens
fire above the head of the injured woman, firing what appears to be three shots
in rapid succession with no apparent warning.

Officers had been told that the attacker may
have had a gun. One caller to 911 said as much and said that there had been
“shots” at the store, although a store employee told the police dispatcher,
correctly, that the man was attacking people with a bike lock and did not have
a knife or gun.

Tom Saggau, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles
police union, said that there were a number of 911 callers who reported that
Elena Lopez had a gun.

“When they went into the store, they believed
they were confronting an active shooter,” he said. “Which changes the mindset.”
He said officers are trained to respond based on the highest level of potential
threat.

But Philip M. Stinson, a professor of criminal
justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who studies police violence,
said that officers must also take into account their surroundings and the
likelihood of bystanders, even when entering a potentially violent situation.

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“The question is going to come down to
whether, in many people’s views, deadly force was necessary to stop the
threat,” Stinson said after reviewing the video of Thursday’s shooting.

He noted that Elena Lopez did not appear to be
“within about 10 feet of anybody when he was shot,” and police had been told
that there were still people in the store.

The immediate response from city officials has
largely been grief rather than calls for reform.

Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a short statement
promising “transparency, sensitivity and accountability.” Other local officials
have echoed that but have said they did not want to draw conclusions about
whether policy changes might be warranted.

But Domingo Garcia, national president of the
League of United Latin American Citizens, a Hispanic civil rights organisation,
said in a statement that the shooting was the latest in a long and troubling
line of such incidents by members of the Los Angeles Police Department involving
Latinos.

“It is apparent that the days of shoot first,
ask questions second, are rearing their ugly head again in one of the nation’s
largest law enforcement agencies,” Garcia said.

Crump, whose colleagues said that details
about possible legal action against the police department would be forthcoming,
said that the family wanted the kind of justice that would help ensure that no
one else becomes “collateral damage” in an encounter with police.

“We should not have to sacrifice innocent life
in the name of safety, when it was foreseeable that, two days before Christmas,
there were going to be people in a shopping plaza, shopping,” he said.

 

©2022 The New York Times Company

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