California Attorney General Rob Bonta Thursday released a report finding insufficient evidence to support criminal charges against two Los Angeles Police Department officers who shot and killed a 48-year-old man holding a butane lighter resembling a gun on a crowded stretch of Hollywood Boulevard last year.
Matthew James Sova was shot and killed on July 15, 2021. Along with the California Department of Justice report, Bonta issued specific policy and practice recommendations related to the incident, as required by a new state law.
Bonta said that while there is insufficient evidence to support criminal charges, there “is no scenario where the loss of someone’s life to violence is something we should accept as the normal course of things … and my heart goes out to Mr. Sova’s family, friends, and loved ones.”
According to Assembly Bill 1506 — which went into effect two weeks prior to the Sova shooting — the DOJ is required to investigate all incidents of a shooting by an officer resulting in the death of an unarmed civilian in the state.
Around 11:20 a.m. on July 15, 2021, LAPD Officers Christopher Tabela and Isaiah Galvez responded to a call regarding a man with a gun near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. They contacted Sova, who pointed what appeared to be a pistol, but was actually a lighter that looked like a firearm, at Tabela, the report stated, and the officers fatally shot Sova.
Prior to the shooting, a 911 caller described Sova as “screaming and harassing people” with “what looks to be a pistol in his hand,” according to a recording of the call released by police.
The newly issued report is the final step in the DOJ’s review of the fatal shooting, and is limited solely to determining whether criminal charges should be brought against the involved officers, and possible policy and practice recommendations.
In all, seven non-sworn emergency response personnel and 13 civilian witnesses were interviewed, and the incident scene was processed for evidence, according to DOJ.
After its analysis, the department concluded there was substantial evidence that Galvez and Tabela acted in self-defense and in the defense of others. Therefore, under the applicable legal standards, there is insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges, the DOJ determined.
The Los Angeles Police Commission ruled in June that the two LAPD officers were justified in fatally shooting Sova. In a 4-0 vote, the commission agreed with LAPD Chief Michel Moore that the officers had acted reasonably and followed department policy in shooting the man.
Bonta said that, among the policy and practice recommendations to LAPD in relation to the incident, LAPD should:
— Ensure personnel are informed and trained on policies, processes and procedures related to the engagement of LAPD’s Mental Evaluation Unit, and, specifically, how and when dispatchers and officers alert and coordinate with such units when responding to situations involving individuals experiencing a potential mental health crisis;
— Given the initial 911 call for assistance, undertake a review of the specific events to evaluate if the harm to Sova and potential risk to officers could have been avoided; and
— Similarly, evaluate whether other resources should have been deployed to address a potential mental health crisis, as doing so may have given the officers time to engage in meaningful de-escalation or other tactical operations;
— Determine whether LAPD’s policies, processes, procedures and training for the development of tactical action plans were properly executed in this case, as both officers transitioned to a lethal response almost immediately upon arriving at the scene;
— Develop guidance for officers to support them in developing techniques for using deadly force in a manner that minimizes the risk of harm to each other and innocent bystanders in crowded locations under such circumstances; and
— Ensure all personnel are familiar with and trained on LAPD’s use of force policy, which requires that officers only use deadly force “when they reasonably believe, based on the totality of circumstances, that such force is necessary in defense of human life.”