The family of 49-year-old Elizabeth Tollison, whom California police officers accidentally shot and killed during a hostage situation, filed a wrongful death claim on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Police Department.
Tollison died outside a Van Nuys church on June 16 after 32-year-old Guillermo Perez placed a knife against her neck in front of three officers, who opened fire. Both Perez and Tollison, who were homeless, died at the scene.
The claim, filed by attorney Brian T. Dunn on behalf of Tollison’s three adult children, accuses the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Police Department of wrongful death, assault and battery, and negligence.
“The officers will say they fired in defense of Ms. Tollison, yet they killed Ms. Tollison,” Dunn said during a Wednesday press conference. “It is illogical and inconceivable for an officer on the scene not to realize that she will certainly be shot if 18 rounds are fired from opposite directions.”
Dunn is managing partner of The Cochran Firm, founded by the late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who died from a brain tumor in 2005 and was best known for being the lead defense attorney in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.
Dunn held the press conference a day after Police Chief Michel Moore released edited footage from the body-worn cameras of two officers at the scene who were responding to a 911 call about a man stabbing his ex-girlfriend.
The footage shows Perez holding a large knife and a folding chair outside the Central Lutheran Church.
“Drop the knife,” an officer can be heard shouting on the video. When Perez ignores the commands, the officer fires several rounds from a beanbag shotgun, but they either miss or are deflected by the folding chair.
As he walks backward in the video, Perez spots Tollison, who is using a walker. The video shows Perez grabbing her and placing the blade of his knife against her throat. That’s when officers suddenly opened fire, shooting 18 rounds and killing Perez. Authorities said Tollison, who was hit by two rounds, died at a hospital two days later.
According to police, witnesses at the scene reported seeing Perez move the knife in a “sawing motion” when he had it against Tollison’s throat.
“The officers were forced to make split-second decisions,” Moore told reporters on Tuesday.
Dunn claims a doctor told one of Tollison’s children that she only had a cut on her cheek that was not life-threatening.
“They say this is a fast-moving situation,” the attorney said. “This is a fast-moving situation because they turned it into a fast-moving situation.”
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Tollison’s son, Jesse Pelaez, also spoke at Wednesday’s news conference.
“The police had no regard for my mother’s life and shot her down,” he said. “The situation could have been handled in so many different ways, but they chose to take the worst-case scenario.”
Tollison’s death marks the second time in the past two months that Los Angeles police have accidentally killed a civilian bystander. On July 21, officers fatally shot a Trader Joe’s manager while attempting to stop an armed man from entering the store.
“It’s been 13 years since an officer’s gunfire has killed an innocent bystander or hostage in this department,” Moore said on Tuesday. “In the last six weeks, it’s happened twice.”
According to witnessLA, Moore was referring to the fatal shooting of 19-month old Suzie Pena in July 2005. The child’s father, Raul Pena, was reportedly cradling her in his arms during a standoff with police. A shootout ensued, and Pena took multiple shots to his upper body. His daughter died from a single bullet to the head.
Investigators will determine whether the actions of the officers involved in Tollison’s shooting align with the department’s hostage training, Moore told reporters. The department also plans to implement new training procedures.
Pelaez said he thinks “if the hostage was somebody important, the situation would have been handled differently.”
“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 the situation properly,” he added.
The claim filed on behalf of Tollison’s children seeks unspecified damages. If the claim is rejected, a lawsuit can be filed.