Family seeks answers after police kill K-Town mental patient

Before Yong Yang was shot and killed by Los Angeles police last week in his parents’ Koreatown home, his mother called mental health authorities for help.

Her 40-year-old son was suffering from a severe bipolar episode, Myung Sook Yang said, and she specifically contacted the county Department of Mental Health (DMH) before the shooting to avoid involving law enforcement.

Hours after she called, her son was dead — killed in the family living room while holding a kitchen knife, police said.

On Tuesday, LAPD officials released the department’s annual use of force report, which showed an increase in the number of times officers opened fire, from 31 times in 2022 to 34 last year — more than any other US department in major cities.

Authorities have blamed the increase in part on the number of people shot who, like Yang, were holding sharp objects while in a mental health or substance use crisis — a trend the department has battled for years to brake.

At an emotional news conference Thursday at the Korean American Federation headquarters in Los Angeles, Yang’s family and their attorneys demanded answers about DMH’s decision to call in law enforcement.

Pausing at times to sob into a tissue, Myung Sook Yang said: “There is a reason why I called the Ministry of Mental Health, not the police; it was so they could help him, not shoot him.

“I thought they were going to help him and take him to the hospital,” she said. “Instead, they shot him, and we want an explanation of how this could have happened.” »

As she spoke, her husband, Min Yang, squeezed her shoulder to comfort her.

Yong Yang’s family said he had suffered from mental health issues for a long time. Although he was never violent, he had already been placed by authorities in a so-called 5150 cell, a detention of up to 72 hours for people considered a threat to themselves or others.

In recent years, his mother said, he had learned to control the symptoms through a regimen of “praying, playing tennis, doing yoga, exercising, hiking.”

Yet, according to his family, he sometimes had episodes like the one that occurred the day he was shot. Fearing they would no longer be able to care for him, the family contacted DMH for help two days in a row.

Yang’s father told reporters that his son’s behavior was not threatening on May 2 when a DMH representative showed up at the family’s home in the 400 block of South Gramercy Place for an evaluation.

Min Yang said the clinician spent less than two minutes talking to Yang before deciding to call the police.

After the police arrived, he said, they told him and his wife to wait outside while they tried to contact Yang, and did not inform them until much later that their son had been shot.

Robert Sheahen, the family’s lawyer, said that based on the information he had, police did not use less lethal weapons to try to subdue Yang, despite being “equipped with full knowledge of her son’s mental health history.

“The LAPD sent nine officers into the house in a military-style maneuver to execute a 40-year-old mental patient,” Sheahen said. “In fact, the situation is even worse: after the cold-blooded murder, the police did not inform the mother that they had shot her son. »

Messages left seeking comment from LAPD and DMH spokespeople were not immediately returned Friday.

Sheahen said the family is calling for an independent investigation.

He said officers failed to provide immediate medical care to Yang and “destroyed all physical evidence at the crime scene.”

“They destroyed every bloodstain, every hair follicle, every shred of physical evidence that could tell us what these police officers did inside the apartment to kill the boy,” he said.

He said the family is preparing to file a government lawsuit against the city, which is the usual precursor to a wrongful death lawsuit.

An LAPD press release issued the day after the shooting gave a significantly different account of the incident, stating that officers were summoned to the scene after Yang attempted to assault the DMH employee.

The police statement said the DMH employee told the first arriving officers that Yang posed a threat to others, prompting the decision to request more officers and notify the Police Assessment Unit. mental health of the department. According to the release, the officers decided to enter the house after several failed attempts to convince Yang to come out alone.

After Yang refused to come out, officers used a key to enter the residence and said they found Yang holding a knife. Within moments, he “advanced toward the officers and an officer-involved shooting occurred,” the release said.

Emergency services were called to the scene and pronounced him dead, according to the press release. No police officers or bystanders were injured.

James An, president of the Korean American Federation, said DMH held a community presentation in Koreatown a few weeks ago to inform families of people with mental illness about the resources available to them. Attendees were told they could call DMH, rather than the police, in the event of a nonviolent emergency, he said.

An said he spoke with LAPD Acting Chief Dominic Choi, who assured him that a thorough investigation into the incident would be conducted.

Community members had met with Choi — the city’s first Korean-American chef — and Mayor Karen Bass days before the shooting to discuss recent assaults in the area. Most of those in attendance left satisfied that city officials listened to their safety concerns and hope the meeting will be a step toward “rebuilding” their relationship with the police department, An said.

But Yang’s death, which was widely covered by Korean-language media, left the community with “a lot of questions,” he said.

Thursday’s press conference came amid renewed scrutiny of the LAPD’s use of deadly force. Statistics released this week by the department show that Los Angeles police have had twice as many on-duty shootings as their counterparts in Chicago, a city with nearly 4,000 more police officers and 1.3 million residents. less than Los Angeles.

There were more police shootings in Los Angeles than in any other comparable department, including New York City, which also had four fewer incidents overall despite being a larger city and force, according to the report.

Those numbers sparked concern among several members of the Los Angeles Police Commission, the department’s civilian oversight body, at its weekly meeting Tuesday. Commissioner William Briggs questioned whether the department could do more to handle confrontations involving people using bladed weapons such as knives and swords, which account for a significant number of shootings.

Department officials said the reasons for the disparity are complex and will take more time to understand.

The department has expanded its training on caring for people in emotional distress, even as its leaders have acknowledged that not all mental health emergencies require the presence of armed police.

They pushed for more of these noncriminal calls to be transferred to a systemwide mental assessment response team, or SMART, which pairs officers with county mental health clinicians trained to peacefully deescalate confrontations with mentally ill people who may not respond well to shouting. controls and flashing police lights.

Last year, SMART responded to about 6,534 emergencies, a fraction of the nearly 43,000 calls for service involving people with mental illness or facing a behavioral health crisis, according to department statistics. Calls involving weapons or threats of violence are still almost always routed to the police.

Police officials have previously blamed gaps in coverage by mental health co-responder teams on staffing shortages in the county, although Choi told the commission Tuesday that the county has made progress in recent months in hiring more clinicians.

Earlier this year, city officials launched a pilot program that sends trained, but unarmed, civilians to some mental health emergencies in three police divisions, with plans to evaluate its performance after a year and possibly to extend it to the entire city.

Inspired by Bend, Oregon’s popular Cahoots program, the initiative includes two teams of mental health practitioners available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for non-violent situations that would typically be the responsibility of police, such as stops and arrests. social assistance calls. for public drunkenness and indecency.

Department officials have repeatedly said that despite increased crisis intervention training and new, less-lethal weapons designed to incapacitate rather than kill, officers are not always equipped to handle most calls related to mental health. At the same time, police say, these types of calls can quickly escalate into violence.

Los Angeles is among major U.S. cities committed to developing and investing in new emergency responses using trained specialists to help the homeless and those suffering from mental health and mental health issues. substance addiction. But similar efforts have failed in cities like New York.

Activists say these efforts remain woefully underfunded and, in some cases, still too closely tied to law enforcement.

Some initiatives have struggled to generalize crisis intervention alternatives. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Fire Department recommended ending a pilot program after officials said it didn’t actually free up first responders and hospital emergency rooms.

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