LOS ANGELES – When Isaias Cervantes got into a mental crisis last week, his family called 911. A sister and therapist who works with Cervantes told Los Angeles County Sheriff’s MPs that the excited 25-year-old has autism and is hard of hearing, according to another sister and a family lawyer.
Despite the alleged warnings, the encounter quickly escalated and ended minutes later when a MP shot and killed Cervantes, causing injuries that could leave him paralyzed.
“Knowing that it may not run is just not right,” said one sister, Yajaira Cervantes. “I wish they were better trained officers who know how to deal with disabilities.”
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She and a group of protesters gathered outside the justice hall in the city center earlier this week. Some carried signs that read “Justice for Isaiah.”
The Sheriff’s Department said in a press release that on March 31, MPs from the agency’s East Los Angeles Station responded to a family disturbance at the house where a man “reportedly assaulted a family member.” The press release did not name Isaias Cervantes, but said that the man “attacked one of the MPs who tore him in the eye while attempting to disarm him” and that the man was shot dead during the fight. The sheriff’s detectives are investigating the incident.
A department spokesman, Captain John Satterfield, said the shooting at the family home on Live Oak Street, Cudahy, and the moments before it and its aftermath, were recorded on MPs-worn body cameras. “We will be posting videos and other relevant evidence in the near future,” he said.
Austin Dove, an attorney who represents Cervantes and his family, said Cervantes was irritable and pushed his mother away before one of his relatives called the police in hopes they could “calm things down”.
“My mother was very scared and said: ‘We should call the police, otherwise they could come and maybe calm him down,” said Yajaira Cervantes.
Instead, Dove said, “the MPs escalated immediately”.
When two MPs arrived, Dove said, they called Isaias Cervantes to the gate. Cervantes refused and said he did not want to come.
The MPs went in and each grabbed one of Cervantes’ arms, Dove said. The three landed on the ground and during the fight one MP warned the other that Cervantes “might try to get your gun,” Dove said.
When he battled MPs ‘attempts to handcuff him, Cervantes’ hearing aid failed, Dove said. He added that a deputy drew his gun and shot Cervantes at close range.
Cervantes was taken to a hospital where a group of MPs prevented Dove from entering Cervantes’ room for about an hour, the lawyer said. MPs left abruptly and told Dove that Cervantes was no longer in custody.
Cervantes’ mother and a behavior therapist who works with Cervantes witnessed the shooting. They were arrested and questioned for hours. Investigators asked if Cervantes committed suicide and if he hated the police, Dove said.
Citing the ongoing investigation, Satterfield declined to say whether members of the sheriff’s mental evaluation team had been phoned or answered on Cervantes’ house.
Dove said the team’s mental health experts were out of the house. The team is usually called by MPs who respond to a call and discover that someone may have a mental illness. Its members usually work in pairs: a surrogate and a licensed psychiatrist trained to de-escalate and avoid the use of force.
In 2020, members of the team answered 7,246 calls involving people in mental health emergencies, a report from the sheriff’s department said. The report said that interactions with MPs or patrolmen on these calls believed that patrolmen would have “very likely” used force in more than 430 of these encounters if the mental health team had not arrived.
Programs such as the sheriff’s mental evaluation team and the role of the police in mental health cases have been the focus of intense debate following the police killings of George Floyd and other black men and women. Widespread protests against police abuse have included calls for the police to be completely removed from mental health calls and involvement with the homeless.
Judy Mark, who leads a group advocating for people with disabilities, said she also helps train police officers on how to deal with people with intellectual disabilities. She said that after filming Cervantes she decided that she could no longer attend these training sessions.
“I’m done working together – we have to find another way. There’s just too much resistance to reform, ”said Mark, who has a 24-year-old son with autism. “As families, we don’t feel safe calling 911 or the police for help. So there has to be a better way.”
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