The family of a man gunned down by Anaheim SWAT officers in Santa Ana filed a legal claim against the city of Anaheim Tuesday, a necessary precursor to a lawsuit against government agencies.
The claim filed in federal court in Santa Ana stems from the fatal shooting of 34-year-old Brandon Lopez on Sept. 28 in a construction zone near the 1200 block of West Santa Ana Boulevard. Lopez was the cousin of Santa Ana City Councilman Johnathan Ryan Hernandez.
The attorneys for the family said they were seeking more than $20 million in damages. If the claim is rejected, the attorneys can then file a lawsuit. The attorneys intend to file the civil rights lawsuit in federal court in 45 days, but the city can have the option to switch it to state court.
The claim named Anaheim police officers Paul Delgado, Brett Heitman, Ken Weber and Caitlin Panov.
“Any loss of life involving police is tragic and our thoughts go out to the family. But we disagree with how this incident is being portrayed,” Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster said. “It was far more complex, involving someone wanted for armed robbery and domestic abuse, someone who recklessly fled and endangered the public and where there was every opportunity to do the right thing for all involved. We never want to see loss of life involving our police. But we believe our officers acted responsibly with a reasonable fear of what was made to appear as a gun.”
Attorneys Dale Galipo and Vicki Sarmiento said the object in Lopez’s hand as he finally emerged from a vehicle following a lengthy standoff ended up being a water bottle in a black bag, and that Lopez was unarmed. They questioned why police did not have a plan to arrest Lopez by using non-lethal methods such as police dogs or rubber bullets and stun guns before opening fire on him.
“Why have all of it if you’re going to execute someone gangster-style,” Galipo said.
Galipo has handled other high-profile shootings involving Orange County law enforcement — including in Anaheim — which have won verdicts for the families of the suspects killed by police.
Galipo said the lawsuit will address issues of police training, and criticized Anaheim officials for producing a video about the incident.
“As usual they try to dirty up the decedent,” Galipo said. “They continue to try to pass off the blame to others.”
The “worst thing” Lopez did that day was get into an argument with his girlfriend and take her car without permission, Sarmiento said.
Police picked up the trail on the allegedly stolen vehicle about 5 p.m. on Sept. 28, and when officers tried to pull him over he kept going, police said. The chase continued into Santa Ana, where Lopez crashed into a trolley construction site at Santa Ana Boulevard and Bristol Street.
Negotiators tried to convince him to get out of the vehicle for three hours before SWAT officers hurled a flash grenade and chemical agent at the car to induce Lopez to get out, Galipo said.
“Within seconds they opened fire,” Galipo said. “And after they shot him there was a delay in getting him medical attention.”
The officers should know the difference between a gun and any type of other handheld black object like a phone or water bottle, Galipo said.
Sarmiento said Lopez was a “loving father, loving son, brother and friend to many.” She added, “This is not a monster as he was depicted. Brandon was loved. He was a talented tattoo artist.”
Lopez’s father, Anthony, heard that his son was the one barricaded in the car, so he ran to the site to try to convince him to surrender to police, he said. But Santa Ana officers quickly caught up to him and steered him into the back of a squad car.
“They slammed me against” a fence, he said. “I kept saying that’s my son, Brandon. They said `shut the (expletive) up. That’s not your son.’ ”
The father added that he pleaded with police to let him talk to his son. “I could have got him out,” he insisted.
The attorneys disputed any suggestion that Lopez wanted to commit “suicide by cop.” If that were the case, Galipo said, then he would have emerged from the car sooner in a confrontational stance.
For now, the attorneys have focused on Anaheim, but if more evidence surfaces showing some negligence on behalf of Santa Ana then they would consider a legal claim and lawsuit against that city as well, they said.
Also on hand for Tuesday’s news conference was Lopez’s mother, Johanna, and the mother of his oldest son, 16-year-old Marcus. Lopez was the father of two other sons, Sonny, who is 12, and Jordan, who will turn 12 in two weeks, and a 13-year-old daughter, Bella.