The Murder of Daniel Elena Lopez

Know the name? Very few do. Maybe a few more know Valentina Orellana-Peralta because she’s the one everyone’s talking about.

It’s all about Los Angeles police killing people. Here’s the short version.

Daniel Elena Lopez was a 24 year old guy who obviously had a break-down at a Burlington Coat Store store in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles County. He rode a bike into the store and then began swinging a bike chain with a lock at people and really hurting a couple of them — he seemed to be focused more on women than men, by the way. His behavior was clearly escalating and the last woman he beat, after dragging her, was bloodied and seriously injured. The guy went crazy. Really bad news. No hero.

Someone in the store called the cops and told 911 that there was a guy with a gun in the store terrorizing people — that’s what she said “a gun”. A squad of four or five cops, armed with what appear to be rapid-fire weapons, came on the scene and began searching the store. They saw Elena walking with his tire chain at one end of the store and one cop shot three or four times and killed him.

In the process, one of the rifle shots hit the floor and ricocheted into a changing room behind Elena’s body where 14 year old Valentina was standing with her mother. She was killed by that bullet. It’s all on police cam and the police have released an excellent, transparent video report on it.

Open the video in another tab to view it. The incident starts at 11:35

Now comes the debate and outcry and the huge “etc” we get when cops kill. If they hadn’t shot, the girl would have lived, say some. Yes, but they were doing their job and it was an accident, say others. They were responding appropriately to what was, effectively, a deadly weapon, say a few. And…well…you’ve heard it all before.

The entire debate is a detour. When cops shoot anyone, the bullets fly and invariably by-standers get hit. That happens all the time. That it’s surprising in this instance is a reflection, not of difficult realities, but of the naivete and inexperience of many thoughtful people. Almost every cop shooting I’ve ever known about personally involves someone on the side getting hit. Think about it — bullets are flying. How in the world can you avoid by-stander victims?

The much more relevant question, given our political environment, is where were “the orders”. Before any cop uses any kind of force, let alone lethal force, they’re supposed to give orders: “Stop right there. Drop any weapons you’re carrying. Put your hands up over your head. Now turn and face me slowly and drop to your knees.” I know this because that’s how they have spoken to me from time to time. It’s how they talk to all men of color from time to time. (Clarification: Once they see how old I am, they don’t make me drop to my knees anymore.)

Then they approach you, detain you, even arrest you. They interact with you to see what you’re like and what should happen. I know this as well because cops do this all the time — you see them do it every day because, surprise or not, most cops I run into (or know personally) don’t want to shoot or hurt people.

So the important thing is on this video from the officers’ cam. It’s kind of long but worth watching. Take a look and I’ll be right back.

Notice what happened? He shot the guy without saying a word to him. Yes,
Elena was a destructive horror story at this moment. But what was he…really? Was he a guy who ran around beating people with a chain all the time? Or was he a normal guy who went crazy? Yeah, he hurt people really bad but did he even know he was doing it? What pressures was he facing? What was his life like? Why in the world would a 24 year old kid walk into a big store and start beating people with a bike chain?

We’ll never know…not really. The cops killed him in cold blood. No trial, no inquiry, no feature stories, nobody asking the big question: wasn’t this a summary execution?

They’re already working to blame him, as they always do. There are reports that Elena Lopez had “an extensive criminal history” which included “domestic battering and fleeing from the police”. As I’ve written before, it’s always the unpopular ones, the criminal ones, the ones with records or blemishes or horror story lives. It’s always them who fall to police bullets. But the story never really sells because, in this case, those crimes are hardly “extensive” and don’t come close to explaining what Elena did and there are no acceptable explanations for what they did to him.

They can’t argue that he had a “gun” as the 911 caller said because we have the cam footage and he clearly doesn’t. They can’t argue that cops responded when their lives were threatened because the footage shows he was far away from them and walking in another direction; he was not a threat. They can’t argue he was a threat to someone else because, although he had just beaten someone, he wasn’t close to anyone at the time. He was just walking. They can’t argue that they had no other choice because they didn’t exercise any other choice.

What would he have done if they had ordered him to stop and given all the orders? What would have happened if four officers converged and physically restrained this guy? What about tasers or clubs or throwing a garment over his head or punching him in the face? Anything but gunning him down because killing a man is the last resort under the law and it is a deeply morally reprehensible action.

The latest is that Benjamin Crumb, whose legal work usually involves victims of police abuse, has been retained in the case: by Valentina’s family. Well…good because if anybody can get some accountability for the family of this 14 year old kid who died standing in a changing room with her mother when some cop opened fire with a rifle, Ben Crumb can. And it’s important to explore the validity of “accidental” by-stander shootings because they are often an eloquent expression of the complete disdain some cops have for people and the total absence of “civilian safety” in cop shooting training.

But the much more important point, given the increase in fascist rhetoric and activity in this country, is whether we continue to allow summary executions. That, after all, is precisely what happened in that Burlington Coat Factory store in Los Angeles. Daniel Elena Lopez was an immediate threat to shoppers in that store but the longer term threat is a government willing to kill on sight and that’s a threat to us all.

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