A Los Angeles police officer was responsible for shooting and killing a Trader Joe’s employee during Saturday’s hostage crisis, the police department announced Tuesday.
On Saturday afternoon, an armed man—identified as 28-year-old Gene Atkins—burst into a Trader Joe’s in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles after crashing a car outside the store during a police pursuit. Police allege that earlier Atkins had shot his grandmother at her house and kidnapped and injured his girlfriend. Atkins’ grandmother, who was shot seven times, has had multiple surgeries since Saturday, and her condition is unknown. The unnamed young woman removed from Atkins’ crashed car is in fair condition.
During the chaotic three-hour standoff, police surrounded the Trader Joe’s and exchanged gunfire with the suspect. Several people were able to flee the store immediately when Atkins entered, and other customers walked out with their hands up during the hostage situation. Some employees escaped by climbing out a back window on a chain ladder.
The store’s manager, identified as Melyda Corado, was shot and killed when she stepped into the parking lot as officers exchanged volleys of fire with Atkins.
Some have questioned the LAPD’s decision to engage in a firefight with the gunman in the busy shopping center. According to Police Chief Michel Moore, approximately 40 people were in Trader Joe’s when Atkins entered it. In addition to the one death, six people—ranging in age from 12 to 81—were hospitalized following the standoff, the spokeswoman for the L.A. Fire Department said; all of them were in fair condition. (Atkins was also wounded in the confrontation with police.)
“How are police deciding to open fire in a packed place, in the afternoon, on a Saturday?” asked Jesse Palmer, a neighbor of Corado’s. “It’s not like it’s an empty lot. It’s not like it’s an abandoned warehouse. What sort of protocol is required before you shoot into an area that’s congested and booming with commerce?”
Officers and experts have countered that firing on a suspect with innocent bystanders around is an extremely difficult but sometimes necessary decision. According to Sid Heal, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department commander and use-of-force expert, “There is no easy answer.” Heal noted that Atkins posed a clear danger to officers and bystanders. “We try to have a clear field of fire, but obviously the suspect has a substantial, even a decisive, advantage if we don’t return fire,” he said.
Geoff Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on the police’s use of force, told the Los Angeles Times that these situations are inherently fraught. “It’s one of those lose-lose situations,” Alpert said. “Unless you can walk away with no one else getting injured or killed, there’s going to be someone criticizing something.”
LAPD chief Moore acknowledged that the officers’ decision to use force was controversial. “Those officers’ actions to stop him, the split-second decisions they had to make, I recognize how they will forever go through their lives debating whether that was what they had to do,” Moore said on Tuesday. “I believe it’s what they needed to do in order to defend … the people in that store and to defend themselves.” Moore also mourned Corado’s death, calling her family’s pain “unimaginable.”
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has met with Corado’s family, called Saturday “a dark day for the family of Melyda Corado.” In his statement, Garcetti affirmed his commitment to shedding light on what transpired during the crisis. “Melyda’s loved ones are entitled to answers—and Angelenos deserve complete transparency in understanding the full circumstances of her death,” he said.
Atkins has been arrested on murder, attempted murder, and kidnapping charges. Although he was not the one who fired the fatal shot, Atkins may still face homicide-related charges for Corado’s death under California’s provocative acts doctrine. This statute holds a defendant responsible if the victim’s death was “the natural and probable consequence of the defendant’s provocative act,” even if he was not the one to kill the person.