Los Angeles • A man fatally shot in a Southern California Costco store was mentally ill and off his medication when he pushed or slapped an off-duty police officer who opened fire and killed the man and critically wounded the man’s parents, the lawyer for the man’s family said Tuesday.
Attorney Dale Galipo said he didn't know if there was any exchange between the officer and Kenneth French before the violence at the store in Corona, east of Los Angeles. Corona police have said French "attacked" the officer "without provocation" but Galipo said that overstated what French did.
"I would hardly characterize it as an attack," Galipo told The Associated Press, describing it as an "open-handed push or slap" to the policeman's back. "It certainly does not justify killing someone."
The officer's attorney, David Winslow, told the AP on Monday that the officer was holding his 1½-year-old son when French knocked him to the ground and he briefly lost consciousness.
"It wasn't an innocent push," Winslow said Tuesday.
When he came to, Winslow said, "he believed his life and his son's life was in immediate danger" and fired his handgun.
Galipo said he'd been told the officer identified himself as a policeman before he shot.
French, 32, of Riverside, lived with his parents and family members believe he suffered from schizophrenia, Galipo said. He had been taken off his medication due to other health complications, which may have affected his behavior Friday night, Galipo said.
It was not clear what medications he had been taking or when he stopped taking them.
"It was my understanding that it just kind of helped him stay calm and not have any problems," said Galipo, adding French had no history of violence and that family members have described him as gentle and non-verbal.
Dr. Steven Siegel, professor and chair of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, said schizophrenia patients suffer from hallucinations, delusions and disorganized thought.
Medication can alleviate many of the symptoms if it is taken regularly but patients can regress within weeks if they stop, Siegel said. Patients may feel threatened from something as innocuous as a blue shirt and react erratically, though not typically violently, and need additional medical help.
"In their reality, they're in danger," Siegel said. "We don't have to be scared of them but we have to take care of them."
The officer, who has been with the LAPD for seven years, underwent a mandatory interview Monday by LAPD investigators as part of the department's administrative probe, Winslow said. He is on paid administrative leave that is mandatory after an officer-involved shooting.
The administrative inquiry, conducted by the department's Force Investigation Division, will look into whether the officer followed LAPD policies, according to Robert Rico, an attorney for the Los Angeles Police Protective League union who spoke generally Tuesday about officer-involved shooting investigations but declined to discuss the Costco case.
The division's investigators look into the drawing and exhibiting of the firearm, the discharge of the firearm, and the tactics used before and during the shooting, Rico said.
The department has not released the officer's identity but a person with knowledge of the investigation said he is Salvador Sanchez. The person was not authorized to speak public and provided the information only on condition of anonymity.
Winslow, the officer's attorney, declined Tuesday to confirm his client's name but said he has never been involved in a shooting. He said they had not decided yet if the officer will sit down for a voluntary interview with Corona police, who are conducting the criminal investigation.
Corona Police Chief George Johnstone said in a brief video released Tuesday that his department has interviewed witnesses and combed through video and other evidence. He said there is no timeframe for when the case will be presented to the Riverside County District Attorney's Office.
"Our investigation has been somewhat hindered by not being able to interview all the parties involved," Johnstone said, but it was unclear if he was referring to Sanchez or the Frenches.
French's mother, Paola French, remains unconscious and in critical condition, Galipo said.
"It's unclear whether she will survive," he said.
French's father, Russell French, is in serious condition but is conscious, the attorney said.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore said authorities are aware of one Costco camera that captured the incident and urged any shoppers who recorded it on video to come forward.
“My heart goes out to the parents of Mr. French and I pray for their recovery,” the chief said.