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When Police Kill Loved Ones, Court Support Is Critical for Families

David Sullivan was killed by the Buena Park Police Department in 2019. With relatives of other police brutality victims by their side, the Sullivans took the city to court this April.

Yearbook photo of David Sullivan, who is smiling at the camera, wearing a tuxedo, and has long brown hair.
Photo: @justicefordavidsullivan | Instagram

In September 2020, DeAnna Sullivan attempted to bring a federal civil rights case against the city of Buena Park in Santa Ana, California, alleging her 19-year-old son, David, was denied his fourth and fourteenth amendment rights after being shot seven times while unarmed. After several days of trial and three days of deliberations at the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Santa Ana this past April, a mistrial was declared when the jury could not reach a verdict. Lawyers for the Sullivan family told Knock LA that they are re-examining their options but were inclined to pursue the case again in California state court, which requires a three-fourths vote from the jury rather than the unanimous verdict required in federal civil cases.

When addressing the Buena Park City Council in May 2021 to ask for the Orange County district attorney to re-open a case against the police officers that murdered their brother, Sam Sullivan, David’s sibling, said that losing him was “like losing part of myself.” Sam Sullivan described David to Knock LA as “quiet and shy, but extremely intelligent and had a big heart:”

“He cared deeply for his family and had a close knit group of friends from school. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after high school, but he was interested in helping people. He was working to be in the military to work as a medic or a dog trainer, but didn’t pass the ‘duck walk’ for the physical, and was doing a lot of training to get his weight down. He also wanted to be an activist, and talked about how he wished he could go help the people fighting the Keystone  Pipeline in 2015. He was extremely empathetic, and wanted to do something that would make life easier for those in need.”

DeAnna has described David as a “quiet and gentle boy. He was tall and big, but he was a gentle giant.”

David Sullivan playing the guitar
Photo: @justicefordavidsullivan | Instagram

Bodycam and court documents show that on August 19, 2019, Buena Park Police Department Officers Jennifer Tran and Bobby Colon pulled Sullivan over due to expired registration on the vehicle Sullivan was driving. Sullivan told the officer that the vehicle he was driving was “his cousin’s,” though dispatchers later identified the vehicle as stolen. Initially, Sullivan stated he did not have a driver’s license, but later produced one and told the officers that he did not update the registration on the vehicle because, “I’m not too big with cars.”

Officer Colon returned to the police car, where dispatchers told both officers that the vehicle was reported stolen. Officers Tran and Colon then both approached Sullivan. Officer Colon opened the driver’s side door and demanded Sullivan exit the vehicle. Sullivan started the vehicle, and Officer Colon grabbed Sullivan’s arm. As David began reversing the vehicle, hitting the Buena Park patrol car, Colon drew his handgun and pointed it at David. The vehicle driven by Sullivan continued moving and clipped another vehicle, then stopped.

Officer Colon then yelled, “Get out of the car,” several times and Sullivan replied, “Fuck you.” Sullivan then exited the vehicle and began running, and Colon fired. Initially running in the direction of the officers, Sullivan changed direction and Colon fired a second shot. Sullivan then began running up a driveway as Colon discharged his handgun a third time. Sullivan then turned around and both officers fired twice. Sullivan then dropped to his knees and laid down on his side. From the moment Buena Park officers approached Sullivan’s vehicle to the last shot, two and a half minutes had gone by.

After shooting Sullivan seven times total, the officers radioed in for paramedic help as Sullivan slowly rolled to his back. The officers then demanded Sullivan roll back onto his stomach, but Sullivan was unresponsive. As Sullivan let out prolonged, pained cries, the officers handcuffed him. Officers then rolled Sullivan again, this time onto his back.

As the officers stood over the body of David Sullivan, Officer Tran asked Officer Colon if “he had a chest seal or anything.” Colon said he did not. The officers did not render any aid other than calling paramedics as Sullivan, handcuffed, bled profusely onto the ground. Sullivan was pronounced dead at the scene due to a shot which went through Sullivan’s heart and lungs, and afterwards the coroner reported seven bullet wounds during Sullivan’s autopsy.

David Sullivan smiling at the camera in a selfie.
Photo: @justicefordavidsullivan | Instagram

Dr. Etoi Davenport, a forensic pathologist working for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, concluded the cause of death was a bullet that entered Sullivan’s right chest cavity, struck both his lungs, his heart, and then exited the left chest cavity. The coroner’s report stated four entry wounds, two exit wounds, and one “atypical reentry wound.” It was Dr. Davenport’s opinion that one round struck Sullivan’s left forearm, exited the forearm, entered the left side of his back, and lodged near his right buttocks. Of the seven shots fired at David Sullivan, five were fired by Officer Colon and two by Officer Tran.

Several facts were important to the case the Sullivan family brought forth, and were in contention with the city’s conclusions. Officers claimed they were afraid that Sullivan “was reaching into his waistband,” though the suit from Sullivan stated that Sullivan’s left arm was behind him due to running and attempting to flee. Officers also stated they were concerned that Sullivan could have attempted to take their handgun away from them.

The Sullivans’ filing makes several claims under a federal statute which allows people to sue local governments for employees violating civil rights while “under color of state law.” The suit alleges wrongful death, negligence, excessive force, and that Sullivan’s fourth amendment rights were violated by Buena Park officers.

The strategy of Buena Park’s attorneys argued that Sullivan’s own negligence contributed to his death. During proceedings, lawyers for the city even went so far as to say that Sullivan’s shooting was a “suicide by cop,” and pointed towards a brief note written on a receipt. The city’s defendants wrote of Sullivan’s death that Sullivan’s “own documented suicide plans were simply interrupted and expedited by two unsuspecting police officers who anticipated little more than a simple traffic citation, but were instead confronted by a violent attack.”

The receipt paper note addressed to Sullivan’s family does not explicitly say Sullivan intended to commit suicide, and it’s not clear when David wrote the note. Sullivan’s family told Knock LA that nothing was found in Sullivan’s vehicle that he could have intended to harm himself with. Sullivan’s family also told Knock LA that the note “could have been in his wallet for a long time.”

Bruce Praet served as the lead attorney for the city of Buena Park during the proceedings, and has carved a career being known for defending police in civil cases along with his partner, Steven Sherman. He is also a co-founder of Lexipol, which provides “risk management solutions,” and trains government employee associations with advice on how not to get sued. Though many of the webinars produced by Lexipol take on topics such as therapy dogs being used by first responders, Lexipol also provides videos about more controversial topics, including “Conclusive Evidence? Understanding The Limitations of Video Footage” and “Law Enforcement and Homeless Populations: Balancing Outreach with Enforcement.”

DeAnna Sullivan (left) and Sam Sullivan (right). DeAnna Sullivan had six attorneys attached to her suit. The attorneys representing Ms. Sullivan have represented many victims of police shootings as well as misconduct, including Anthony Vargas, Ernie Serrano, and Steve Salgado. (Photo: Sean Beckner-Carmitchel | Knock LA)

When the family of David Sullivan underwent the process of suing the city of Buena Park in federal court this past April, a small and tight-knit group of people remained to support them. Many of Sullivan’s supporters in court also had loved ones die at the hands of law enforcement; all of them told Knock LA that the days spent in court for slain loved ones are incredibly difficult. Several of them described an eventful few days of proceedings; one supporter was told he had to remove a jacket, and then revealed a shirt underneath with the words, “fuck racism,” written on it, two jurors were removed from the case due to “outside research,” and a supporter was accused of waving at a juror.

A group of court supporters gathering outside of a courthouse.
The Sullivan family’s court supporters gather outside of the federal building. (Photo: Alicia Marie Keys)

Valerie Rivera was one of the court supporters for the Sullivan family, and she has her own upcoming civil suit in June alleging the wrongful death of her son, Eric Rivera, by LAPD officers. In 2017, officers shot 11 rounds at Eric Rivera, hitting him in the head, chest, and legs. The responding patrol car ran over his body shortly thereafter. Original reporting stated he had a gun; later it was shown that he only had a black and green toy gun on his person. The family’s social media is calling for court support as well.

Valerie Rivera flashes a peace sign at smiles while supporting the family of David Sullivan in court. She is wearing a bright pink shirt and black hoodie,. Her brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail
Valerie Rivera, mother of Eric Rivera, supports the Sullivans in court. (Photo: Sean Beckner-Carmitchel | Knock LA)

Valerie Rivera told Knock LA that court support is “needed for the court system to see that the person that we’re talking about that lost their life matters. That the people care about what happened to that person. It’s important that a lot of people show up… Also, to be able to uplift the families. If I was to go to court [by] myself… I can’t even imagine how much more heaviness that would be. Just [for supporters] to be there for me if I break down or just to let me know that it’s okay and that we’re here for you and that you’re not alone… Just as bad as getting the initial phone call, is the trial. We need more people out.”

Sam Sullivan sits down at a table in front of a puzzle at Ronald Reagan Federal Building
Sam Sullivan and court supporters finish a puzzle while awaiting the verdict. (Photo: Sean Beckner-Carmitchel | Knock LA)

When the Sullivans’ trial concluded, court supporters were putting together a large puzzle as a calming group activity. An activist named Laura announced to the group the results of the jury deliberations: a mistrial. Several members of court support began tearing up. DeAnna Sullivan, Sam Sullivan, and an attorney for the family welled up in tears as the announcement was made. After the trial concluded, members of court support hugged the Sullivan family and wished them well.

Christian Contreras, a lawyer for the Sullivan family, told Knock LA his clients’ next steps: “We’re thinking about it. We are weighing our options. We have to meet with our clients… but we’re leaning towards going to state court where this case was originally filed.” Confident regarding their potential next step, Contreras said, “If this case were in state court, we would’ve won easily.” He also told Knock LA that “watching the videos so many times [in court] was hard, especially for the families.”

At a May 2021 Buena Park City Council meeting, DeAnna tearfully said of the loss of her son, “He did not get to go to his brother’s wedding. He did not get to turn 20. He didn’t even get his driver’s license. He’s never gonna get married. He’s never gonna find the love of his life. He’s never going to give me grandkids. I’ll never see him again.”