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Three Deaths in One Week Cause City to Ask Why It Didn’t Use Mental Health Resources

Two shootings and one death in custody lead to calls for more mental health professionals working with LAPD. Other city officials are asking for unarmed professionals.

CONTENT WARNING: The following article details violent acts carried out by police officers and features graphic videos. Please exercise extreme caution and self-care if you choose to read this article and view these videos.

A collage of three men: Takar Smith on the left in a gray shirt, Oscar León in the center, wearing a Mexican soccer jersey, and Keenan Anderson on the right, wearing purple graduation robes.
Three people died in a span of two days as a result of use of force by LAPD officers. All three were suffering mental health crises, yet SMART teams weren’t contacted. (Sources: Takar Smith (left), Twitter; Oscar León (center), Adriana Cabrera; Keenan Anderson (right), Dominique Anderson)

LAPD is notorious for using what many believe is an improper use of force, however, recent deaths have caused an uproar among activists. In a span of two days, three people died after LAPD officers used force on them. All three cases may have involved people experiencing a mental health crisis. Two, Takar Smith and Oscar León, were fatally shot by officers. Another died during a hit-and-run investigation after being forced to the ground and repeatedly tased by officers. Some are asking why mental health professionals weren’t called, while other city officials are calling for a complete overhaul in how the city responds to mental health incidents.

Keenan Anderson

A man in purple graduation regalia stands in a crowd of fellow graduates.
Keenan Anderson died in LAPD custody after police officers struggled with him, tasing him multiple times January 3. (Source: Dominique Anderson)

LAPD states they first approached Keenan Anderson on January 3 at a traffic collision in Los Angeles’ Venice neighborhood. Video released by LAPD shows Anderson approaching LAPD officer Coombs, who was on his motorcycle near the collision. Later during a press conference, police Chief Michel Moore claimed Anderson attempted to enter the vehicle of an Uber driver before the interaction.

In the video, Anderson points toward several vehicles while saying “please help me,” then begins to run. Coombs drives toward the collision, and multiple other people point to Anderson as the source of the collision. Anderson appears to be nervous as the officer catches up with him; at one point he tells Coombs, “somebody’s trying to kill me.”

A man is held to the ground by a police officer. A green taser is in view. Captions read: "Stop it right now! Stop it right now! Turnover. Turn over or I'm a tase you."
An officer threatens to use a taser on Anderson. Another officer holds him down, putting pressure on Anderson’s elbow or neck. (Source: LAPD)

Anderson at first takes every direction from the officer responding; six minutes of video are cut from footage LAPD has released. Anderson tells the officer that “he wants people to see [him],” then begins to move. Beginning to run, the officer gives chase on his motorcycle. The officer catches up with Anderson and tells him to get on his stomach while he is sitting in the road. Several officers arrive as backup and begin to force Anderson down.

“Turn over, or I’m going to tase you,” says Officer Jaime Fuentes Jr., pointing a taser while another officer applies pressure to Anderson’s chest or neck.

“I can’t,” Anderson says. Anderson’s voice is hoarse and fearful, as he struggles to say “they’re trying to George Floyd me.” When officers get Anderson turned over, Fuentes Jr. threatens to tase him. Fuentes Jr. uses a taser on Anderson repeatedly, continuing to tell him to “stop resisting,” long after Anderson has been handcuffed. In a press conference, Moore later said that officers attempted to tase Anderson six times — two didn’t appear to be effective, and officers used tasers on Anderson four more times over 33 seconds.

The effects of tasers on humans are still being researched and studies have yielded mixed results, in part because of the tricky ethics of using humans as case studies. And in at least one case, TASER International has attempted to dissuade a study by paying its researchers. The Police Executive Research Forum recommends suspects not be exposed for longer than 15 seconds. Even many advertisements for the products designate them as working for “up to 30 seconds.” The City of Los Angeles paid the family of Michael F. Mears after a federal jury found LAPD had violated his Fourth Amendment rights in 2014: he’d been tased six times over six minutes, and for 32 seconds straight. Mears died several hours later, and the department argued that the cocaine in his system had contributed to his death.

Police Chief Michael Moore stands at a podium with the LAPD seal on it. He is flanked by the American and Californian flags.
Chief Moore gives a press conference on the three deaths of people suffering mental health crises. (Source: Sean Beckner-Carmitchel)

LAPD policy does not set a limit on the number of times a taser can be used, but “officers should generally avoid repeated or simultaneous activations,” according to Moore at a press conference.

LAPD Chief Moore brought up preliminary drug test results on Anderson, claiming that they’d found metabolites of cocaine and cannabis in Anderson’s system. Though Moore may have brought the idea up to call into question Anderson’s health at the time and attempt to justify Anderson’s death as drug-related, metabolites for cocaine often stay in a person’s system for days after use. Various right-wing commentators, continuing a long tradition of justifying police violence by citing drug use, have latched onto LAPD’s release of preliminary toxicology results.

Anderson appeared to be erratic, asking for help from officers at several moments. Several times, he told officers that someone was attempting to kill him. Anderson appeared to become convinced that officers responding were not in fact LAPD officers at all. No mental health response team was requested at any point during the stop that eventually ended in Anderson’s death.

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Oscar León

Two men stand in front of a soccer field in a crowded stadium. The man on the left wears a green Mexico soccer jersey and holds a scarf above his head while the man on the right holds the flag of Mexico.
León (left) was fatally shot by police officers January 3. (Source: Adriana Cabrera)

Oscar León was shot and killed by LAPD Newton division officers on January 3. Both León’s family members and LAPD say that he’d been experiencing a mental health crisis when he was fatally shot by LAPD officers. León had been throwing objects at vehicles while walking down the street, and several drivers had called 911 to report it. LAPD claims that one of those objects was a knife.

León then left the area, and walked to a vacant home he’d been living in. Several officers arrived and began shouting at León, asking him to come down the stairs of the home. For several minutes, officers asked or commanded León to meet them downstairs. Refusing, León went into the home. One officer grabbed a ballistic shield as two others followed him up a staircase. Bodycam footage is hidden behind a ballistic shield in one view; in others, it’s difficult to see León. León appears to have been holding the top portion of an electric scooter. Officers fired upon León with both a handgun and a less-lethal bullet.

Two men stand in front of a gray brick building with a television camera between them.
Ysidro León describes his brother. (Source: Sean Beckner-Carmitchel)

León’s brother, Ysidro León, wore a shirt with the image of Oscar’s face on it at a press conference Sunday. He said that Oscar León’s depression was amplified by grief when their mother died three years ago, and that his brother had some moments Ysidro described as “pretty extreme.” Christian Contreras, a lawyer for the León family, said that León was going through a mental crisis, and that LAPD is “not equipped to respond to mental health crises, especially when it [involves] a Spanish speaker.”

LAPD later identified Diego Bracamontes and Christopher Guerrero as officers involved in the shooting.

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Takar Smith

A man stands outside a yellow house, wearing a gray shirt that reads "Flex Hard."
Takar Smith was fatally shot by police officers January 2. (Source: Twitter)

“When I walked into the police station, I was thinking for help. That’s why I didn’t make the 911 call. Because I didn’t want to make it seem like something bad.” Shameka Smith, Takar’s wife, said that when she walked into LAPD’s Rampart station, she was looking to get help for her husband. According to Shameka, Takar struggled with schizophrenia and had not been taking his medication. She says that officers gave her a phone number to call. LAPD officers arrived later at Takar Smith’s home; they then shot him fatally. The family’s attorney says they are planning a lawsuit against LAPD.

As part of LAPD’s bodycam release, a taped phone call records a woman telling a police dispatcher that “they gave me this number to call.” Repeatedly, she tells the dispatcher that Takar Smith had mental illness issues. She tells officers that Takar Smith had a knife in the home.

In video released by LAPD, an LAPD officer arrives and speaks with Shameka Smith. She tells officers that Takar had arrived at her apartment and wouldn’t leave.

Even Chief Moore said during a press conference that officers requesting assistance from mental health professionals was an expectation. Despite three mental health response units being available at the time, none were requested.

A man in a red shirt stands in his living room, with the TV on. Captions read: "If you hurt us right now, I'm letting you know you will get TASED."
Officers tell Takar Smith they will tase him. (Source: LAPD)

In the video, the officer then knocks on Smith’s door. When Takar Smith opens the door, the officer asks if he can talk to him. Takar Smith asks to put on his shoes. Officers enter the home, and begin asking Takar Smith to talk to them outside of the apartment. It’s clear one officer has met Smith before; they both acknowledge that they’d seen each other previously. Smith becomes agitated as officers continuously request that he exit the apartment. When one officer threatens to use a taser on Smith, things escalate and Smith looks fearful as he grabs a chair.

“I’m trying to leave,” Takar Smith tells officers. He repeats that he just wants to grab his shoes and then will leave of his own volition. Eventually, Smith puts down the chair. Officers on scene answer that they will grab his shoes while Smith insists that he put his shoes on before he leaves. Smith begins to go to the kitchen, and LAPD officers begin to sound anxious. Several times, they mention a nearby kitchen knife to each other. Smith gets a glass of water as an officer grabs the chair and tosses it backwards.

Two police officers have their guns drawn on a man standing in his kitchen, holding what appears to be a cup. Captions read: "Stop playing childish games." "Officers."
An officer accuses Smith of playing “childish games” while responding to his mental health crisis. (Source: LAPD)

An officer continues to attempt to persuade Smith to leave as Smith continues to ask the officer to respect him. Smith even puts his shoes on, after minutes of negotiations. But things break down when an officer accuses Smith of playing “childish games.” Smith gradually begins to get upset again, and walks back into the kitchen and throws two bicycles in between himself and the officers. Later, Smith gets on the bicycles and an officer begins to tase him. Another officer tases him seconds after. Smith grabs the knife. A third officer begins tasing, and Smith drops the knife. Officers continue to tase Smith.

Eventually, Smith grabs the knife again. Officer Lazaro deploys OC spray, one of several products commonly called “pepper spray.” Two officers shoot Smith as Smith holds the knife in his hand. Though according to the categorization in LAPD’s eventual press release, Smith “raised [the knife] above his head,” it’s possible Smith may have been attempting to place the knife back on the counter. Officers identified by LAPD were Joseph Zizzo and Nicolas Alejandre. Even after he’d been shot, officers tase Smith once more.

Officers can be heard coughing from the OC spray. It took two minutes before dispatchers requested an ambulance for Takar Smith. By LAPD’s account, it took three minutes before officers began CPR on Takar Smith, and they were performing CPR for at least eight minutes before medical professionals arrived.

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Chief Moore Under Fire and a Bizarre Press Conference

A press conference on January 11 regarding the deaths garnered some controversy. LAPD’s “critical incident videos” often come under scrutiny for containing video edits, and many are released just before the legally-mandated 45-day deadline. In the cases of Anderson, León, and Smith, all three videos were released less than eight days after the incident, out of character for the LAPD. Additionally, the LAPD videos’ edits have the department under fire as well; Streetsblog reporter Sahra Sulaiman noted in an article regarding her lawsuit against LAPD that the use of cutaways in one case “obscures the public’s ability to accurately understand the shooting.”

A press conference coincided with the release of some bodycam footage of all three deaths. Outside, activists from Black Lives Matter Los Angeles held a brief rally, saying that “LAPD has decided to release highly edited, narrated footage of all three of the killings they committed so far this year to press only.” The conference itself was held just seconds after the actual release of the footage, leaving journalists unable to view it before asking Moore questions.

When asked at a press conference whether the deaths should discount him from an upcoming police commission vote on his reappointment, Moore replied, “I welcome [critics’] consideration and understanding of that.”

SMART and a Movement for More

LAPD currently uses SMART (Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team) at times to respond to calls. SMART is part of a “co-deployment” that pairs mental health workers with an LAPD officer. Originally, the teams were “secondary responders,” but the program began pairing officers with the team in 2021. Assistant Chief Frank, when announcing the co-deployment method, said that it “allows us to begin that de-escalation process as quickly as possible.”

SMART teams are paid for by county rather than the city. In 2021, there were 12 SMART teams despite LAPD stating that they needed 34 teams to respond to the city’s needs. Moore said in a press conference regarding the deaths that “without question, the most under-resourced area in public health and public safety is mental health clinicians.” According to Moore, less than a third of potential incidents that could be handled by mental health response teams receive a response from SMART. When asked what a SMART team could or would have done differently that could have prevented the deaths, Moore said in a press conference, “I don’t know, and we’ll never know.”

“LAPD can absolutely improve, and it can absolutely improve dramatically. But they shouldn’t be involved in a lot of the calls in the first place,” former Councilmember Mike Bonin told Knock LA. “Instead of doing something different than armed law enforcement, we try to pair something different with law enforcement.” Bonin pointed out Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) as a potential model for some solutions.

Activists and politicians alike are questioning LAPD’s competence in dealing with mental health crises. Los Angeles City Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez has entered a motion for members of STAR to travel to Los Angeles for a presentation. STAR sends unarmed mental health professionals rather than police as a response to certain 911 calls. Originally beginning as a six-month pilot program with $208,141 in grant money in June 2020, it had $3.9 million allotted in the 2022 budget. The program has been widely praised, and their operation manager stated last year that they’ve never called police for backup.

But even in Denver, the program has had its limitations. The program only operates between 6 AM and 10 PM daily. Of 11,000 calls STAR says it could have handled between its inception and June 2022, it only had the scale to handle 2,700.

Remembering Those Lost

A vigil on January 14 for Keenan Anderson brought dozens in the rain to mourn his death, many of whom were related to Anderson. Calls for justice for Anderson have come from around the country, and vigils for him have been held as far as Oregon and New York. Anderson was a 10th-grade English teacher at Digital Pioneers Academy in Washington, DC. He was 31, and was the father of six-year-old child Syncere. Digital Pioneers Academy, in a statement, said, “In less than six months at Digital Pioneers Academy, he established strong relationships with scholars and staff. He was beloved by all.”

Oscar León’s brother Ysidro told Knock LA via an interpreter, “Just like every other family, they had a relationship … They cared about him … Like all brothers, we used to laugh, we used to play growing up.”

A friend of Takar Smith, Vision, said that Takar was “charismatic and funny at saying things.” Many of his friends called him Fish, according to Vision. At a vigil, Shameka Smith called Takar “a great father, a great man, a wonderful man.” Takar Smith was the father of six children.

It’s possible these deaths will continue to call activists to action. A flier circulated calling for activists to demand justice for Anderson on Tuesday, January 17. Several more vigils for Anderson are planned nationwide. It’s likely that activists will continue chants of “no more Moore,” as Moore’s second term will go up for a vote from police commissioners by late March.