When Shameka Smith called Los Angeles police one afternoon last week to report her estranged husband had violated a restraining order by showing up at her apartment and grown violent, she mentioned several times that he hadn’t been taking his medication to treat schizophrenia.
It was for this exact type of call that years ago the Los Angeles Police Department created its Mental Evaluation Unit, which pairs officers with county social workers trained in de-escalating standoffs with people thought to be mentally ill. But when a group of patrol officers dispatched to the apartment building in the city’s Rampart neighborhood huddled outside to devise a plan, no one suggested calling the unit.
Instead, they confronted 45-year-old Takar Smith on their own, engaging in a tense back-and-forth with the incoherent man that ended when two officers opened fire, killing Smith as he knelt on the kitchen floor holding a knife.
On Wednesday, police Chief Michel Moore took the unusual step of publicly second-guessing the officers’ handling of the incident before an investigation has been done, indicating he believes they should have tried to summon a team from the mental health unit. He added that he also had concerns about the “initial actions” officers took when Smith’s wife first went to an LAPD station seeking help.
At a news conference, Moore said he had “concern relative to the communications operator who took information from this victim … as well as the actions of our officers and supervisors not acting on information regarding this individual’s prior mental health issues or current mental health issues.”
“At no point during this call was our mental assessment team, also known as SMART, called to the scene to assist in this investigation over the course of the ordeal,” he told reporters. “At times you’ll see the officers on their body worn video attempt to verbally de-escalate the encounter. However, I also have concerns regarding the final moments leading up to the shooting. We’ll be looking closely at this investigation as it’s completed.”
Moore made his comments as the department released video footage of Smith’s killing captured by cameras worn by officers, as well as video of two other deadly encounters that occurred last week.
In one, police fatally shot a man in South L.A. who had been throwing objects at passing cars and, according to an LAPD account, was holding a sharp piece of metal when confronted by police. In the other incident, a man suspected of causing a car accident in Venice while driving under the influence died several hours after an officer stunned him repeatedly with a Taser.
The death of the man in the car accident, Keenan Anderson, drew significant attention when Patrisse Cullors, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter organization, announced he was her cousin and accused the officers of using unnecessary force that killed him.
Under department rules, the LAPD releases videos of police shootings within 45 days of an incident. But as recent incidents garnered increasing attention, Moore decided to move more quickly.
Included in the video of Smith’s killing was audio of the call his wife made to a nonemergency number given to her by an officer at the LAPD’s Rampart station. In it, she requested help from police to remove her husband from her apartment, saying she had a restraining order against him, that he had been violent with her in the past and that he had been throwing things around the apartment.
She warned that he had threatened to fight police if they were called and that there was a knife in the kitchen. But she also relayed that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was not taking his medication.
“He’s acting crazy and he’s supposed to take medication because he has like a mental illness,” she said.
Police arrived and tried to convince Takar Smith to leave with them, the video shows. When he refused, they followed him into the apartment. After about 15 minutes of back-and-forth, during which Smith was verbally combative and often sounded incoherent, the officers cornered him in the kitchen. They struck him with Tasers after he picked up the knife, causing him to drop the blade, the body camera footage shows. When he picked it back up and raised it up while on his knees, the officers opened fire.
Moore said that Officers Joseph Zizzo and Nicolas Alejandre fired seven total rounds between them: two by one officer and five by the other.
After the videos’ release, Mayor Karen Bass released a statement saying she had “grave concerns about the deeply disturbing tapes.”
“Full investigations are underway, and I pledge that the City’s investigations into these deaths will be transparent and will reflect the values of Los Angeles,” the statement said. “I will ensure that the City’s investigations will drive only toward truth and accountability. Furthermore, the officers involved must be placed on immediate leave.”
Several mental health experts said that the presence of a SMART unit may have helped avert the deadly outcome.
Kathleen Crowley, executive director of ProCovery Institute, said after watching the video that she was troubled by the officers’ response. The officers, she said, possibly missed multiple opportunities to end the call without resorting to violence.
“Basically they didn’t seem to understand or identify that he was in psychiatric distress and they did nothing to minimize it,” said Crowley. “Someone should have spoken softly to him, they should have listened to him, they should have repeated what he said even if it felt like gibberish to him. They should’ve asked if he was OK. They should’ve offered to call anyone that he wanted to help.”
The situation wasn’t so clear cut to Ed Obayashi, a Northern California deputy and police lawyer who advises law enforcement agencies on proper responses to use-of-force incidents.
“Could they have done something else? You’re always going to have that question, but you know I think under the circumstances these officers did the best they could,” Obayashi said.
Nor, he said, did it seem appropriate to request the presence of a SMART unit, although he acknowledged he isn’t familiar with the department’s policies on its deployment. Given the apartment’s cramped quarters and the information suggesting that Smith wanted to fight police, it would have been unsafe to send in an unarmed civilian, even one trained to deal with someone in crisis, he said.
The deadly encounters have shaken public confidence in the department as Moore is seeking a second term as chief.
After the chief briefly outlined the incidents at a meeting Tuesday of the department’s civilian Police Commission, several people called into the meeting to decry what they said were the department’s continued failures to curb police violence — something that some felt precluded Moore from being considered for a second five-year term.
Moore has defended his record and rejected the characterization of his department by some critics as being particularly violent, saying the number of deadly encounters is down from years past through various policies and training.
Last year, the department had 31 shootings, 14 of which were fatal, down from 37 shootings in 2021.
Times staff writers Richard Winton, Emily Alpert Reyes and David Zahniser and the Associated Press contributed to this report.