The death of a 14-year-old from a stray bullet during a police action in Los Angeles caused a stir and raised questions about intervention techniques used by American law enforcement authorities.
Valentina Orellana-Peralta imagined herself to be in the “safest country in the world.” She died at 14, the victim of a stray police bullet. On Dec. 23, the teen, a recent immigrant from Chile, found herself with her mother in the changing room of a clothing store in North Hollywood, near Los Angeles, when police officers intervened to stop an attack on a customer by a 24-year-old man.
One of the emergency calls mentioned an armed man with a heavy bike lock; another mentioned a firearm and gunfire. Upon arriving, police officers discovered a bleeding woman. One of them fired three times, killing the suspect. According to the initial investigation, a shot ricocheted off the floor and passed through the wall of the changing room before mortally wounding Oreallana- Peralta.
Bewilderment and Criticism
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore made his apologies to the family of the young girl and promised to shed light on the “circumstances that led up to this tragedy.” These promises have not dispelled either the incomprehension or the criticism aroused by the intervention measures of law enforcement.
“It is unacceptable that Los Angeles police officers were able to open fire in a crowded store at the height of Christmas shopping without knowing for sure whether the suspect was armed,” Domingo Garcia, president of Lulac, an organization defending the civil rights of Hispanic Americans, said angrily.
“The reflex is resort to the use of force,” notes Didier Combeau, a political scientist, United States specialist and associate researcher at the Institute of the Americas. “When the police intervene in a public place and a firearm has been reported –- as was the case here –- the doctrine habitually used consists of neutralizing the suspect as quickly as possible in order to limit the number of victims.” This technique became widely used after the Columbine shooting in 1999, which took 15 lives.
But this approach leads to tragedy. And its relevance is all the more debatable since American police officers are regularly called to situations involving people who suffer from mental health issues.
“Around 10% of emergency calls involve psychiatric problems,” figures Combeau. In total, 1,051 persons were killed by police in 2021, according to the website mappingpoliceviolence.org, a number that has remained more or less the same since 2013.
Better Training in Deescalation Techniques
In recent years, police departments have been trying to improve training in deescalation techniques, initiated in the early 2010s. “They consist of being able to evaluate the situation, master negotiation methods and have familiarity with the fields of psychology and psychiatry,” Combeau said.
While the upper ranks in police forces favor these techniques, uniformed police express reluctance. ”For them, it’s more difficult because it runs contrary to law enforcement culture which holds that force must reside with the law and that they must systematically keep the upper hand,” the scholar said.
The question of reform in police training is not new. Already in 2015, a Police Executive Research Forum report noted that a police officer had, on average, 49 hours of training devoted to defense techniques as against only 10 hours devoted to communication techniques.
The death of Orellana-Peralta fits into a national context of increasing violence. Since the beginning of 2021, 687 shootings taking at least four victims –- whether wounded or killed –- were reported by Gun Violence Archive. In Los Angeles alone, 325 homicides took place from Jan. 1 through October 2021, compared with 218 over the same period in 2019.
This increase in acts of violence correlates to an increase of firearms. A record-breaking 23 million firearms were sold in 2020, according to the specialized firm Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting. Increased violence may also be attributable in part to the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 in a country where anxiety often translates into buying a gun.