The man seen on Los Angeles police body camera video being struck in the head by a sponge grenade as officers closed in on protesters in the Fairfax district earlier this year says he was left with debilitating injuries after striving to deescalate the situation.
CJ Montano, 24, is seen holding his arms above his head as the projectile hit his forehead, causing him to crumple to the ground, in the footage released Friday by the L.A. Police Department.
The Marine Corps veteran has filed a claim against the city, alleging LAPD officers violated his rights and left him with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, among other conditions.
The use of less-lethal force occurred shortly after 7 p.m. on May 30 outside Pan Pacific Park on Beverly Boulevard. It was the first night of a citywide curfew, but the order didn’t go into effect until 8 p.m.
Montano says he originally arrived to protest at the park around 12:45 p.m., and joined a peaceful march through Fairfax, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, before returning to the street outside the park, where authorities were forcefully attempting to quell demonstrations.
LAPD officers in the area called for reinforcements after protesters threw rocks and bottles at them, according to Capt. Gisselle Espinoza.
She said the officers used bean-bag shotguns — which deploy a sock filled with metal pellets — and 40mm less-lethal launchers — which fire sponge grenades — “to target individuals who were throwing objects at the officers.” She noted that the rounds are “intended to cause pain.”
The video shows Montano was standing away from most of the crowd when he was struck. He said his position was meant to help officers distinguish him from those who were antagonizing them.
“Because at that point the police were already firing randomly into the crowd most of the day, I had figured it would be safer for me to be distant from the crowd with my hands up to basically show that I am not a violent threat in any means,” Montano told KTLA in a Zoom call after the bodycam video was released Friday.
Montano says he had been trying to be a go-between between the officers and people hurling items, to foster communication in the tense standoff. “I was actually trying to maintain a level of peace between both sides,” he said.
But police continued to fire projectiles, and protesters continued to return rocks and bottles.
On the bodycam footage, officers can be heard shouting “Less lethal,” and “Leave the area,” just before they open fire, with one projectile making contact with Montano’s head.
Montano said he didn’t hear any dispersal orders above the “confused screaming” and many explosions going off in the area.
“I was just moving backward, respecting the distance that they were trying to ask for by moving forward,” he said. “I didn’t want to act in a way that made me seem like I was like more aggressive than I was, so I was moving back slowly as police officers want you to, and with my hands up so they could see I was peacefully protesting.”
LAPD has classified the use of force as an “unintentional head strike,” although it remains under investigation.
Under the department’s policy, less-lethal weapons must be fired at a specific target; police can’t shoot into a crowd as a means of dispersal. When targeting someone, an officer must aim around the person’s navel, then their arms and legs, but never their head or neck.
LAPD investigators say they’re still trying to determine which officer struck Montano.
Montano believes he was intentionally targeted.
“That was the fourth time I had been shot with a larger projectile that day, when I got hit in the head. So it didn’t seem like it was unintentional,” he said. “The police line didn’t even stop moving forward, they just kept advancing on us.”
Other protesters unacquainted Montano came to assist him, as he says he lost vision for 45 minutes after beings shot. The bystanders took him to Cedars-Sinai, where he received around seven staples on his forehead and hospital staff reported they could see his skull beneath the skin torn by the projectile, according to his claim.
He suffered from brain bleeding and spent four days in the hospital, including two in intensive care. The full extent of his injuries is still being evaluated, his lawyers said.
Montano alleges he’s been left with hearing loss, recurrent dizziness, nausea when in cars, diminished language proficiency, mental confusion and an inability to comprehend social cues. Furthermore, he says music is now difficult to listen to — a source of great distress considering he’s a music student at the Los Angeles Recording School.
He says he’s “mentally drained” and his “whole physical life has taken a complete 180 in terms of what I’m able to do for myself independently or not.”
“Even though I was being peaceful after being shot multiple times, I still was put into the situation I’m in now,” he said. So it’s like, what can you do if you can’t peaceful protest?”
His attorney, Timothy Loranger, says they had not received a substantive response to requests for records in the use of force, and Friday’s video release was a “surprise.” But the footage supports the allegations in their claim.
L.A. has until Aug. 10 to respond to the claim seeking in excess of $25,000 in damages; if the city fails to do so, Montano plans to sue.
LAPD says it began investigating the use of force July 1, and Espinoza said Montano has refused requests to be interviewed in the case.
The department will not draw conclusions about whether the force was in line with department policy until the investigation is complete, which could take up to a year.