LOS ANGELES – An LAPD sniper fired a rifle from a helicopter during a shootout with a man killed in Sunland earlier this week. This marks the first time that SWAT officers have opened fire from a helicopter hovering over a scene, the LAPD said Tuesday.
Chief Charlie Beck told reporters that an autopsy would reveal how many times the 29-year-old man was struck by gunfire Monday afternoon — and whether it came from officers on the ground or in the helicopter. But, the chief said, it appears he was struck by gunfire from the air.
Police shootings from helicopters are rare, reported the Los Angeles Times.
Firing from a helicopter requires approval from a high-level officer — in this case, an assistant chief who also discussed it with Beck beforehand.
“When the geography and the circumstances dictate, we want to make sure that it’s available. That’s exactly what happened in this instance,” Beck said.
The events leading to the shooting began earlier that day, Beck said, when a woman woke up and saw an intruder in her home. The woman escaped through a bedroom window and called police, according to the chief.
Responding officers verified the intruder armed himself with a weapon belonging to one of the occupants of the residence. They contained the scene and called SWAT. Beck said the standoff lasted five hours as the man refused to surrender.
The house — in the 11300 block of Alethea Drive — was at the top of a hill, surrounded by brush and debris, Beck said. That created what he described as a “very difficult location” for SWAT officers, contributing to the decision to bring in the officers trained to fire from a helicopter.
“The suspect definitely had high ground at all of the ground officers, was firing indiscriminately at them — and actually fired at the helicopter, we believe,” Beck said.
SWAT fired tear gas into the house to try to force the man out. He emerged about 2:45 p.m. and opened fire on police, according to an LAPD spokeswoman on Monday. That is when the suspect was shot.
After being hit by gunfire, the man’s body rolled down a ravine. He was pronounced dead at the scene. LAPD has not released the man’s name, saying his relatives had not been notified.
Multiple officers fired their weapons during the encounter, Beck said. A department spokesman said no officers were injured, nor was the woman who fled the home.
An investigation into the deadly encounter is underway, which is standard procedure for all shootings by LAPD officers. It also will be reviewed by the district attorney’s office, the Police Commission and its inspector general.
Beck told police commissioners Tuesday that investigators still were searching the scene, hampered in part by tear gas vapors lingering inside the house. But, he said, it appeared that department officials acted appropriately when deciding to put SWAT officers inside the helicopter.
“It requires very specific criteria that have to be met regarding terrain, regarding weather, regarding the threat to the community, regarding the other options that have been utilized,” the chief told his civilian bosses. “It appears that those criteria were met. Obviously there will be further review of this to ensure that.”
When other Southern California officers have fired shots from helicopters, similar questions followed about why the tactic was used.
In 2015, San Bernardino County sheriff’s officials used a helicopter to fire on a driver in a wrong-way chase on the 215 Freeway. A department spokeswoman at the time said the decision was made because the suspect threatened the public’s safety by speeding, running stop signs and traffic lights, narrowly missing pedestrians and driving in the wrong direction.
Yet perhaps the most famous police helicopter shooting in Southern California occurred in 1982, after a man suspected of robbing an Orange County bank led authorities on a rolling gun battle through three counties.
According to Los Angeles Times reports at the time, police said Stephen Moreland Redd, 37, fired at officers with an automatic weapon in one hand while steering his car with the other during the 110-mph chase. One officer was wounded.
He surrendered after a San Bernardino sheriff’s deputy fired a pistol from a helicopter hovering 20 feet above the freeway. Officials told The Times that the deputy waited for a break in traffic before firing the shot, which hit Redd’s rearview mirror.
(Photo courtesy LAPD)