Crime & Justice

Sheriff's race frontrunner weathered rash of officer-involved shootings

Gary and Shirley Lowery stand by an alter dedicated to her son, Johnny Del Real, who was killed by Long Beach Police on September 26, 2013.
Gary and Shirley Lowery stand by an alter dedicated to her son, Johnny Del Real, who was killed by Long Beach Police on September 26, 2013.
Rina Palta / KPCC

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Nearly a year after her son was shot and killed by a Long Beach police officer, Shirley Lowery still keeps the urn holding his remains on a makeshift alter on a bar near the back door of her house. 

“I was going to deposit his ashes," Lowery said, "but I just can’t let him go."

She still can't sleep well either, her mind racing.

“The other night, I woke up at 3:15 and it was like a recording,” she says. “When he was born, when he learned how to walk, the first time he went snowboarding, the first time he went surfing. It keeps flashing.”

Her son, Johnny Del Real, was one of 15 people Long Beach police officers shot or shot at in 2013— about double the average in the city, records show.

The rash of shootings provoked protests, lawsuits (including Lowery’s current $10 million claim against the city) and questions about the tactics used by the Long Beach Police Department.

At the center of those questions was Jim McDonnell, the current police chief and frontrunner to win the job of Los Angeles County sheriff in the November election.

Darick Simpson, head of the Long Beach Community Action Partnership, said one of the men shot last year was friendly with kids in one of his group’s youth programs.

When Sokha Hor, 22, was critically wounded by police, at first his family was kept from seeing him in the hospital. Public outrage ensued and a lot of kids in Simpson’s program participated in protests.

But McDonnell and his staff’s willingness to share information - and desire to hear the kids’ side of the story - helped mitigate the tension, Simpson said.

“You know there’s three sides, right? Your side, my side, and the truth of any given story," he said. “We came to a greater understanding of a truth that diffused an issue that could have been blown up into bigger than what it needed to be.”

McDonnell said he reacted to the spate of 2013 shootings by looking at the evidence in each case. Most involved people who were armed with real or replica weapons.

“To try and say why is one year higher than another year is difficult,” he said. “We look at each officer-involved shooting based on the merits of that shooting. The circumstances that led up to it, the tactics the officers used, the use of force itself. And then what they did after the use of force.”

He said he’s made minor policy and training adjustments as a result. He declined to give details.

But he said he has tried to be transparent about the circumstances of each shooting.

“I think you can judge an organization by how we deal with critical incidents,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell's opponent in the race for Sheriff, former L.A. Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, couldn't be reached for comment for this story.

Not all the questions around the shootings have dissipated.

Simpson, the youth advocate, said he’s not convinced the problem is over in Long Beach.

Retired LAPD Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, a Long Beach resident and a frequent critic of the department, said police didn’t react strongly enough to the shootings.

“We haven’t seen a lot of announcements that say we are taking corrective action,” Downing said.

He points to LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s reaction to the recent shooting of Ezell Ford - where the chief quickly promised a fast-tracked investigation and held several press conferences - as an example of what McDonnell and his staff should have done.

McDonnell said he had already made big changes in policy when he first got to Long Beach five years ago. Each officer involved in a shooting is now required to attend a debriefing, training, and psychological evaluation afterward, he said.

So far, 2014 has been a record low for officer-involved shootings, with four total. McDonnell said that shows the previous year was likely an anomaly, not evidence of a major problem in his department.