Sheriff's watchdog calls for review after fatal Christmas Eve shooting of mentally ill man

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The L.A. County Sheriff's Department's approach to policing mentally ill people should be examined by the county's newly-formed Civilian Oversight Commission, a member of that commission said Wednesday.

"It very much will be on the agenda," said attorney Hernan Vera, was appointed to the new watchdog panel by L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis.

Vera is the former president and CEO of Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm in L.A. He will join eight other civilians appointed to work with the county's Inspector General to boost transparency and examine problems within the sheriff's department.

KPCC spoke to Vera a few days after sheriff's deputies fatally shot a mentally ill man in Pico Rivera on Christmas Eve. The man was later found to be holding sewing scissors. The sheriff’s department has identified the man as Zhonghua Li, 48. It provided no more information on him.

Vera said he thinks the new commission should look at whether the department is doing enough to avoid fatal confrontations.

"The training from top to bottom will probably, at some point, be looked at," Vera said. "Everything from the initial approach to community members to the intake process at the jails."

Deputies were called to Li's home after family members reported he was stabbing relatives. The family said he had a history of mental illness, said Sheriff’s Homicide Lt. Steve Jauch.

The call came in around 4:45 p.m. on Dec. 24 and two deputies (each in their own patrol car) were dispatched. Dispatchers initially told deputies there was a violent, mentally ill person at the residence, said Jauch. Its unclear why the department did not send a mental evaluation team.

“The call ultimately was upgraded to an assault with a deadly weapon when the family told dispatchers he was stabbing people,” Jauch said. “That would, by all means, ratchet up the response.”

When the deputies arrived at the home, they found Li outside the house waving what appeared to be a sharp object. One of the deputies went back to his car to retrieve a shotgun that shoots non-lethal beanbags. When a beanbag blast to Li’s torso failed to stop his advance toward them, both deputies opened fire. Li was pronounced dead at the scene.

Deputies later recovered a pair of threading scissors used in sewing.

“I would describe them as two exacto knife-type blades,” Jauch said. Li’s sister was stabbed in the hand with it before deputies arrived, he said.

That a family would call the sheriff’s department for help with a mentally disturbed relative on Christmas Eve only to have deputies kill him is “tragic all the way around,” he said.

“The deputies did try less lethal force and it had little effect,” Jauch said. He described deputies as “being forced to take the life of a man” when other means of stopping him failed.

He could not say how close Li was to the deputies at the time of the shooting. The deputies have not yet been identified.

Vera said the sheriff's department has made improvements in how deputies deal with mentally ill suspects, expanding its number of mental evaluation teams. Eventually, the department plans to have teams available throughout the county 24 hours a day.

A report by L.A. District Attorney Jackie Lacey last year also outlined the sheriff department's plan to provide all of its 5,355 patrol deputies 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team training, which would be phased in over six years. 

That training, modeled on a program started in Tennessee and known internationally as the "Memphis Model," is designed to help officers defuse situations involving those experiencing some sort of mental health crisis.

The commission is expected to hold its first meeting in late January.

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