A team of Los Angeles police officers mishandled their response to a gunman inside a Ralph’s grocery store last year, contributing to a chaotic exchange of gunfire and a subsequent hostage situation, the LAPD’s civilian oversight panel ruled Tuesday.
One of the team’s failures — not establishing a perimeter around the grocery store during a nearly half-hour standoff — provided the suspect with “an avenue of escape” to reach an AM/PM convenience store across the street and hold a clerk there at gunpoint before finally surrendering, officials found.
Police had first responded to the area in North Hills on Nov. 1, 2020, after receiving 911 calls alleging that a man with a gun was walking in the street and confronting passersby, officials said. One family with a baby ran to a local fire station and pounded on the door for help, according to 911 calls.
Responding officers were directed to the Ralph’s, where store staff said they had lost track of the suspect, later identified as 37-year-old Manuel Marshall Hernandez, somewhere inside the store. During that conversation, Hernandez suddenly fell through the ceiling onto a row of freezers that shaped one of the store’s aisles, according to police body-camera video.
Multiple officers armed with projectile weapons and handguns staged around Hernandez and tried to talk him down from the top of the freezers for more than 20 minutes before he suddenly leaped off and ran through an aisle, allegedly firing at several officers as another, identified as Officer Phillip Yu, fired back, police said.
No one was struck by gunfire in the exchange, though one officer suffered a laceration.
Immediately following the exchange of gunfire, Hernandez ran into a rear portion of the store reserved for staff. He then fled out the back of the store and to the AM/PM as the officers, unaware he had escaped, continued to stage inside the grocery store, investigators found.
At the AM/PM, Hernandez allegedly held a clerk at gunpoint, police said. When officers responded there, Hernandez surrendered within minutes and was taken into custody, police said. A handgun was recovered from inside the store.
L.A. County prosecutors charged Hernandez with attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon on an officer, assault with a firearm, false imprisonment and being a felon in possession of a firearm, according to court records.
Hernandez could not be reached for comment. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, according to court records, and is awaiting trial.
In voting to administratively disapprove of the LAPD response, the Police Commission on Tuesday concurred with findings by internal investigators and LAPD Chief Michel Moore that several officers and supervising sergeants deviated substantially from established protocols designed to keep themselves and others safe when dealing with armed suspects.
Some of the officers said they were confronted with difficult and competing considerations during the fast-moving encounter — such as not wanting to immediately call in the SWAT team for a suspect in mental crisis, and not wanting to wait for backup to enter the Ralph’s for fear of an “active shooter” scenario.
Three officers and three sergeants were met with administrative disapproval for their actions. The sergeants — identified as Thomas Bangasser, Jeff Cortina and Kevin Cuartas — were criticized for not contacting the SWAT team or the department’s Mental Evaluation Unit and not naming an incident commander to direct the response.
“Without a defined [incident commander], there was no clear allocation or management of resources, no objectives set, and no stability or structure to this dynamic incident,” investigators determined. “This created an unnecessary risk to civilians and officers and allowed an avenue of escape for Hernandez.”
In addition to not securing the rear of the store, the team was criticized for not clearing the store of its employees at the earliest opportunity and not following other protocols for barricade situations. The team also was criticized for not establishing clear roles among themselves, including for cover officers.
“Communication among the supervisors and officers were not sufficient to allow for proper situational awareness,” investigators found.
The Police Commission found that Yu was justified in shooting at Hernandez, and that other officers were justified in drawing their weapons during the confrontation. It directed the sergeants and officers found to have deviated from protocols to receive training on their tactical lapses and the proper protocols for such scenarios.
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