Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials on Sunday displayed photos and a video appearing to show a man holding a gun just before he was fatally shot Saturday by deputies in an incident that has generated debate about police use of force.
Sheriff’s officials said at a news conference that the man, Nicholas Robertson, 28, fired six to seven shots into the air on a residential street in Lynwood before walking into a bustling shopping district on Long Beach Boulevard around 11 a.m.
He entered at least one business on the boulevard, “behaving erratically with gun in hand,” said Capt. Steve Katz of the sheriff’s homicide unit. A video displayed at the news conference showed Robertson on the street appearing to hold a gun as the two deputies arrived.
Katz said “public safety was critical here” because there were people on the street, including some at a gas station that Robertson was walking toward. Robertson at one point pointed the gun in the deputies’ direction and ignored their commands for him to drop the weapon, he said.
The deputies opened fire, and in the video released Saturday, continued to shoot as Robertson was crawling. Authorities said he was continuing to hold the gun at that time. In all, one deputy fired 16 shots and the other fired 17.
Juan Roberto, 18, said he was sweeping the floor inside the pool and banquet room of Chico’s Pizza parlor, across the street from the site of the shooting, on Saturday morning when a man walked in with a gun.
“He was holding a silver semiautomatic handgun on his left hand,” Roberto said. “The gun looked as if it was empty” because the slide, the part of the gun that slides back when fired, appeared to be locked back.
Roberto said the man kept walking and talking loudly before exiting through a side door.
“He sounded angry about something,” Roberto said. “I don’t understand English that much but I know that he wasn’t making sense.”
Roberto said he and his fellow employees watched through the window as the man crossed the street. Deputies were already on the scene and traffic was brought to a standstill on both sides of Long Beach Boulevard.
Roberto said the man was walking north on the boulevard when he heard shots ring out and he ran outside.
“Then I saw him crawling,” Roberto said of the gunman as bullets continued to fly. “He was still holding the gun and he still wouldn’t let it go.”
Katz stressed that the investigation is ongoing. He said Robertson might have had some type of “domestic discord” with his spouse that prompted his actions but did not provide details.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell said Robertson had “prior contact with the criminal justice system” but was not specific.
The incident comes amid increasing public scrutiny over police-involved shootings both in the Los Angeles area and nationwide. Over the last two years, the Los Angeles Police Department has dealt with several controversial shootings by officers, including one involving an unarmed homeless man on skid row that was also captured on video. That case is still under investigation.
On Sunday, family members began to gather outside the gas station where Robertson was shot, embracing and sobbing around a growing collection of candles and kerchiefs.
His wife, Nekesha Robertson, said he was devoted to their children. “Anytime you see him, you see him with the kids,” she said. “He’d take them to and from school. Help them with homework. He’s a daddy — that’s his job. He didn’t do nothing else.”
Nekesha said the couple had been together for 11 years and married for three. They had 6-year-old twins — a boy and a girl — and a 7-year-old daughter.
She told reporters that he was a high school graduate who didn’t engage in crime.
“They will not get away with it,” she said, standing outside the gas station where the shooting occurred. “My kids will see justice.”
Nekesha Robertson said her mother-in-law had called her shortly before the shooting to tell her that her Nick was under the influence of alcohol.
Nekesha said when her husband drank, “he’s more like a child. A child who needs love.”
She said she was on her way to get him and had stopped at the same gas station to buy milk before the shooting happened.
She said her father had died earlier in the year. “My twins say, ‘Not another funeral,'” Nekesha Robertson said.
Relatives said they didn’t know anything about Robertson carrying a gun.
In the 29-second video obtained by KTLA and recorded from a restaurant across the street, a sheriff’s deputy follows Robertson as he appears to be walking away from the deputy.
According to authorities, witnesses said that moments before, Robertson turned and pointed the gun at the deputies.
At least a dozen gunshots are then heard, and Robertson falls to the ground. He drags himself on the ground alongside an Arco gas station.
A brief pause in gunfire follows, then shots begin once more.
When the camera pans back, two deputies can be seen a few yards way, both with arms raised, pointing their weapons in Robertson’s direction.
Seth Stoughton, a criminal law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former Tampa, Fla., police officer, said there are circumstances under which an officer can shoot at a suspect walking away from them. “If the deputies reasonably believe the suspect with a firearm presents a danger by walking toward a gas station with vehicles and bystanders, they would be justified in using deadly force.
“It does not strike me as egregious like [the] Walter Scott video here in South Carolina…. If the suspect wasn’t armed or they didn’t have a solid basis for that belief, that would more problematic,” Stoughton said. More facts, he cautioned, are needed to determine what occurred outside the video.
Once the suspect is on the ground, how close the gun is to him is key in whether shots are justified, he added.
Experts familiar with use-of-force cases said deputies will need to explain why they opened fire and continued to shoot as Robertson was on the ground.
“They are going to have to articulate why they made every one of those shots,” said Ed Obayashi, an Inyo County deputy and an attorney. “They must show they reasonably used deadly force.”
Sid Heal, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff’s commander who testifies in lethal-force cases, said that to use deadly force, an officer or deputy must see a suspect as an imminent threat to police or the public.