Family demands answers after LAPD officers fatally shoot mentally ill man in Koreatown

News conference at the headquarters of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles.
From left, Myung Sook Yang, Min Yang and Robert Sheahen, their attorney, appear at a news conference at the headquarters of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles. (Libor Jany/Los Angeles Times)

Before Yong Yang was fatally shot by Los Angeles police last week inside his parents' Koreatown home, his mother tried for two days in a row to get help from mental health officials.

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

Within hours of making the call, her son was dead — killed in his family's 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 that officers opened fire, from 31 times in 2022 to 34 last year — more than any other big-city U.S. department.

Officials 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-related crisis — a trend the department has struggled for years to curb.

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

Stopping at times to sob into a tissue, Myung Sook Yang said: "There's a reason I called the Department of Mental Health, not the police; it was so they could help, not shoot him."

"I thought they will help him and take him to the hospital," she said. "Instead, they shoot him, and we want an explanation as to how this could happen."

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

Yong Yang's family said he had long struggled with his mental health. While he was never violent, he had previously been placed by authorities on a so-called 5150 hold, a detention of up to 72 hours for those deemed a threat to themselves or others.

In recent years, his mother said, he had learned to keep the symptoms at bay through a regime of "prayer, playing tennis, yoga, exercising, hiking."

Still, his family said, he occasionally had episodes like the one that occurred on the day he was shot. Worried they could no longer care for him, the family contacted the DMH for assistance twice in 48-hours.

Yang's father told reporters his son's behavior was not threatening on May 2 when a DMH representative showed up to 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 officers arrived, he said, they told him and his wife to wait outside while they tried to contact Yang, and didn't inform them that their son had been shot until much later.

Robert Sheahen, an attorney for the family, said that based on the information he had, police did not use any less-lethal weapons to try to subdue Yang despite being "equipped with a full knowledge of the son's mental health history."

"LAPD sent nine officers into the home in a military-style maneuver to execute a 40-year-old mental patient," Sheahen said. "It actually gets worse: Following the cold-blooded killing the officers did not notify the mother that they had shot her son."

An LAPD spokesperson said body camera footage from the incident would be released by mid-June and declined to comment further.

The mental health department said in a brief statement that it couldn't comment about the incident, but that generally its "field intervention teams are trained to de-escalate mental health crises without law enforcement involvement."

"However, this is not always possible," the statement read. "In instances where de-escalation through clinical means is not possible, and the person in crisis remains an imminent threat to themselves or others, despite DMH’s efforts, law enforcement will be contacted to maintain safety and attempt to keep the peace."

Sheahen said the family is asking for an independent investigation.

He said officers failed to provide immediate medical attention to Yang, and "destroyed all the physical evidence at the crime scene."

"They destroyed every bloodstain, every hair follicle, every shred of physical evidence which might tell us what those officers did inside the apartment to kill the boy," he said.

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

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

The police statement said the DMH worker told the first officers to arrive that Yang posed a threat to others, triggering the decision to request more police and notify the department's Mental Health Evaluation Unit. According to the release, officers decided to enter the home after several failed attempts to convince Yang to come outside on his own.

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.

Paramedics were called to the scene and pronounced him dead, according to the release. No officers or bystanders were injured.

James An, president of the Korean American Federation, said that the DMH had held a community presentation in Koreatown only weeks before to inform families of people with mental illness about resources available to them. Attendees were told they could call the DMH, instead of police, for nonviolent emergencies, he said.

An said he had spoken with interim LAPD Chief Dominic Choi, who had assured him a thorough investigation of the incident would be conducted.

Community members had met with Choi — the city's first Korean American chief — and Mayor Karen Bass days before the shooting to discuss recent assaults in the area. Most of those in attendance left satisfied that city authorities were listening to their security concerns and hopeful that the meeting was 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.

The Chosun Daily L.A., a Korean-language newspaper, issued a statement that said that the "Korean community and neighbors are highly paying attention to this incident which has deeply saddened all."

Thursday's news conference came amid renewed scrutiny of the LAPD's use of lethal force. The statistics released this week by the department showed Los Angeles police had twice as many on-duty shootings as their counterparts in Chicago, a city with nearly 4,000 more officers and 1.3 million fewer residents than L.A.

More police shootings in L.A. were fatal than in any other comparable departments, including New York City, which also had four fewer incidents overall despite being a larger city and force, the report showed.

The numbers drew concern from 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 be doing more to handle encounters involving people with edged weapons such as knives and swords, which accounted for a significant number of shootings.

In response, Choi said that the department needs to explore new technologies, such as drones, that could give police time to come up with a plan of action and potentially avoid unnecessary confrontations between officers and people in crisis.

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

They have pushed for handing off more of these noncriminal calls to a Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team, or SMART, which pairs officers with county mental health clinicians who are trained in peacefully de-escalating standoffs with mentally ill people who may not respond well to shouted commands and flashing police lights.

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

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

Earlier this year, city officials launched a pilot program that sends trained, but unarmed, civilians to certain mental health emergencies in three police divisions, with plans to evaluate its performance after a year and potentially expand it citywide.

Modeled after the heralded Cahoots program out of Bend, Ore., the initiative features two teams of mental health practitioners available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for nonviolent situations that would typically fall to police, such as conducting welfare checks and calls for public intoxication and indecent exposure.

Department officials have said repeatedly 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 mental health calls. At the same time, police say, these types of calls have the potential to quickly spiral into violence.

Los Angeles was among the major U.S. cities that pledged to develop and invest in new emergency responses that use trained specialists to render aid to homeless people and those suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues. But similar efforts have floundered in cities like New York.

Activists argue that such efforts remain woefully underfunded and, in some cases, are still too closely aligned with law enforcement.

Some initiatives have struggled to bring crisis intervention alternatives to scale. 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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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.