County pays $3.3-million settlement in shooting
John Berry, 31, who suffered from schizophrenia, was shot 18 times by sheriff ’s deputies.
Something wasn’t right when John Berry drove up unannounced to his family’s home one day two summers ago.
He’d been fired from his job at a pizza parlor and had been getting little sleep — not a healthy scenario for someone diagnosed with schizophrenia who appeared to be off his medication.
So when Berry’s brother, a sworn law enforcement officer, called the local Los Angeles County sheriff’s station in Lakewood, he requested a mental evaluation team to try to calm Berry down and transport him to medical care.
Instead, after deputies responded to the call about an “insane person” on the residential street where Berry was parked on July 6, 2015, a struggle ensued. Berry was shot 18 times and killed by deputies, according to a memorandum by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $3.3-million settlement in a wrongfuldeath lawsuit filed by Berry’s mother and other family members, who alleged that deputies used excessive force against Berry.
Prosecutors decided last year not to file any charges against the deputies — Anthony Johnson, Michael Bitolas, Roberto Solorio and Eric Saavedra — saying they acted in “lawful self-defense and in defense of others” when they shot at Berry to stop him from ramming his BMW into one of their fellow officers.
Berry, according to prosecutors, resisted deputies as they tried to pull him out of his vehicle.
The memo says the 31year-old was peppersprayed, Tased and struck with a baton before he suddenly backed his car up and knocked over a deputy, leading other deputies to believe the lawman was in danger of being run over.
But Berry’s family said he did not ram his car into a patrol vehicle and that he was unarmed and not acting violently.
“This is not how you treat the mentally ill,” Berry’s brother, Chris Berry, 39, said Thursday.
“They absolutely escalated the situation,” said Berry, who works as a federal police officer at a veteran’s psychiatric facility in Long Beach and witnessed the entire incident. “They treated him like he was a suspect and they were gonna take him into custody.”
Chris Berry said that although the episode eroded his trust in the justice system, he commends the department for trying to improve how its deputies handle mentally ill people.
Department spokeswoman Nicole Nishida sent a statement in an email saying that the agency convenes a weekly review panel to learn and improve from critical incidents, many of which involve the mentally ill. About 70% of incidents in which deputies use force involve people suffering from some form of mental illness or substance addiction, she said.
A video recorded by a neighbor shows deputies struggling with someone in a car before shots are fired, but the shaky clip doesn’t display the precise moment before Berry’s shooting.
The settlement comes as the department is trying to train its deputies to better handle calls involving the mentally ill. In December, the department began a new crisis intervention training course, which involves 32 hours of instruction on different types of mental illness and how to de-escalate encounters. Nishida said 518 deputies have completed the course.
Every deputy and sergeant assigned to field operations — which includes patrol, transit stations and the parks bureau — is scheduled to complete the course within the next four to five years, said training bureau Capt. Scott Gage.
All deputies already receive 32 hours of verbal resolution instruction just after they finish the academy, he said.
The Board of Supervisors voted in January to expand the department’s Mental Evaluation Teams — specialized units of deputies paired with mental health clinicians that respond to calls involving people believed to be mentally ill who are threatening others or being disruptive.
The county spent nearly $51 million in settlements last fiscal year to resolve legal claims against the Sheriff’s Department. From 2011 to 2016, 74% of the department’s excessive-force payouts, which totaled nearly $89 million, stemmed from shootings.
JOHN BERRY, prosecutors say, resisted deputies as they tried to pull him out of his vehicle.