The family of a 49-year-old woman who was fatally struck by police gunfire during a hostage situation in Van Nuys last month has filed a wrongful death claim against the Los Angeles Police Department a day after footage from the June incident was released.
Elizabeth Tollison died after Guillermo Perez, 32, grabbed her and put a knife to her throat outside Hope of the Valley Rescue Mission on June 16.
Responding officers initially deployed beanbag rounds at Perez and yelled at him to drop the knife – to no avail. Three officers eventually fired 18 rounds at Perez from different directions while he was still holding Tollison, who was struck twice. Both the suspect and victim fell to the ground and eventually died.
During a news conference announcing legal action on Wednesday, an attorney representing Tollison's family said LAPD did not respond appropriately to a situation involving a man who appeared to be unstable.
Brian Dunn, a managing partner that the Cochran Firm, said that there was a lack of communication between dispatchers relaying information to the officers, who had no plan to de-escalate the situation before they fired at Perez and Tollison.
"The only killing that happened that day was done by law enforcement,” Dunn said. "The irony in this is that the officers will say that they fired in defense of Ms. Tollison, yet they killed Ms. Tollison."
He added that it is "illogical and inconceivable" for the officers to think Tollison could be saved when 18 rounds were fired in her direction.
Dunn said that in calling the shooting a tragedy, LAPD Chief Michel Moore is suggesting that the incident was "exclusively" caused by Perez's actions and, in turn, the chief is denying that police hold any responsibility for what happened.
"The absolute worst part of this is that a person who was undeniably, completely blameless, lost her life. Who do we see about that? Where is the responsibility?” Dunn asked.
He said the real tragedy is that Tollison's sons are left without a mother. Tollison was homeless and left behind three adult children.
"It hurts me so much knowing I’ll never be able to see, talk or listen to my mother again because the police didn't know how to handle a situation properly," said Jesse Pelaez, one of Tollison's sons. "I hope the police get stricter on their training and protocol so that this doesn’t happen again to someone else, or someone else’s family."
On behalf of Tollison's children, the Cochran Firm has filed claims for wrongful death, assault and battery, and negligence against the city of Los Angeles and the LAPD. The firm was founded by famed attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr., who died in 2005.
During the LAPD's release of the graphic video Tuesday, Moore said that the department is working on getting more nonlethal weapons and will reevaluate their training. He admitted that, while his department had not killed a bystander or hostage in 13 years, his officers had done so twice in the last six months, referring to the fatal shooting of an assistant manager of a Trader Joe's in Silver Lake last month.
The video of the "critical incident" was released under a new department policy requiring bodycam footage to be made public within 45 days.