Specially trained SWAT officers from the Los Angeles police department shot a man from a helicopter hovering over the scene in a neighborhood north of the city on Monday afternoon, killing the suspect and marking the first time officers in the city have opened fire from a helicopter.
Police chief Charlie Beck said it was not clear how many times the man had been shot or whether the gunfire came from the ground or air, but, he said, he appeared to have been stuck by fire from above, according to the Los Angeles Times.
It is rare for police to fire from helicopters. The aircraft’s movement or conditions inside it can make such shots especially hard and can hinder accuracy. But it has been done before.
In 2015, officers in San Bernardino County opened fire on a suspect in a wrong-way chase on the 215 freeway, and in 1982, a car-chase suspect surrendered after a sheriff’s deputy fired a pistol from a helicopter hovering over a freeway after waiting for a break in traffic.
The incident on Monday started when a woman awoke that morning to find an intruder in her home. She escaped and called police, who arrived at the house in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest to find that the suspect had armed himself with a weapon belonging to one of the home’s residents.
A SWAT team was called in, and police surrounded the home, using a bullhorn and eventually firing tear gas into the home to get the suspect out.
The house — at the top of a hill with brush and debris all around — created a “very difficult problem” for officers on the scene, Beck, the police chief, said, according to the LA Times.
“The suspect definitely had high ground at all of the ground officers, was firing indiscriminately at them — and actually fired at the helicopter, we believe,” he said. Aerial video appeared to show the man firing on officers, who responded in kind.
At about 2:40 p.m., the suspect was shot, and his body rolled into a ravine, where he was pronounced dead.
While LA-area police have fired from helicopters before, the use of lethal standoff tactics and weapons by US law enforcement typically draws scrutiny.
Last summer, police in Dallas used a bomb-disposal robot equipped with an explosive device to kill a suspect involved in a deadly ambush on officers in the city.
Dallas’ mayor said at the time the suspect had died after police “blast[ed] him out,” and the city’s police chief said, “Other options would have exposed our officers to great danger.”
Beck, the LA police chief, said the incident appeared to meet very specific criteria for such use of force, and the shooting will be reviewed by police authorities and civilian officials. An outside expert also defended the action, saying LA police specialize in tactical shooting.
Others worry about the lessons the LA incident could send to other police departments. “I just worry that it sets a bad precedent,” Samuel Walker, a retired criminal-justice expert and policing expert, told the LA Times. “You can have some other departments saying, ‘Well, if the LAPD can do it, we can do it.'”
In Mexico, where engagements between police and criminal suspects often involve heavy weaponry, marines fired on a kingpin and several of his associates from a Black Hawk helicopter with a machine gun, lacing a home in a neighborhood with a six-second stream of gunfire. Eight suspects were killed in that incident.