Before LAPD officer Toni McBride shot and killed 38-year-old Daniel Hernandez last April, she spent many off-duty hours at Taran Tactical Innovations, a Simi Valley gun range where she trained as a competitive shooter and was a rising Instagram influencer. The 23-year-old hobnobbed with the range’s celebrity clients, fired off gonzo weapons, and used her status as a model and sharp-shooting cop to amass tens of thousands of Instagram followers. At the range, a haven for action movie stars and hopefuls, McBride even made light of her LAPD division’s nickname—“Shootin’ Newton”—in a video that has come back to bite the young officer.
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Now McBride’s Instagram account is private and she faces two lawsuits from the Hernandez family. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing in May, the case is one of several local police-involved shootings receiving increased attention from activists and the general public. As scrutiny around the case grows, McBride’s social media presence isn’t the only thing that’s raised eyebrows. The officer, who’s been on the force for fewer than three years, also happens to be the daughter of Jamie McBride, a powerful board member of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. Given incumbent District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s political relationship to the police union, the familial tie has created a new wrinkle in the case—and in an already contentious DA’s race, which will be decided in November.
As a member of the union board of directors, the elder McBride, an LAPD detective, helped orchestrate a million-dollar attack campaign against George Gascón, the reform-minded opponent to incumbent Lacey. Since the DA’s office will be responsible for reviewing the Hernandez shooting and deciding whether or not Toni McBride is prosecuted, Gascón has called for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to take over the investigation and any decision regarding charges. In a recent phone call, Gascón opined that the process “reeks of impropriety,” and said that if he’s elected, he will appoint a special prosecutor outside his office to oversee the case.
Responding to these criticisms, Lacey’s office told Los Angeles last week that she’ll ask Becerra to review the case and decide whether there is any basis to conflict-of-interest concerns.
“District Attorney Lacey does not have a personal relationship with Jamie McBride or any member of his family,” a spokesperson for the DA’s office said. “But to address any possible appearance of impropriety, District Attorney Lacey will ask the state Attorney General to independently review the matter to determine if a conflict exists.”
Tom Saggau, a spokesperson for the LAPPL, which represents roughly 10,000 rank-and-file officers, says he has no qualms with Lacey’s action. He claimed Gascón is looking to “score political points at the expense of others.”
Two experts said that the shooting appears to be a textbook example of police use of deadly force against an approaching knife-wielding suspect. But another expert, along with the Hernandez family, believes McBride rushed to shoot. On April 22, a caller contacted 911 to report that a man was stabbing himself in his car after causing a multi-vehicle crash in South Los Angeles. Around 5:38 p.m., McBride happened upon the scene while responding to a separate incident, according to the LAPD’s account. By then, a growing crowd surrounded the area, including multiple onlookers who filmed the incident. In bodycam footage released by the LAPD, McBride can be seen tossing aside a snack, before she jumped out of the squad car’s passenger seat and approached the chaotic scene. In the footage a witness tells her that “he has a knife.” Soon after, a shirtless Hernandez walks toward McBride, holding an object in his right hand, which the LAPD said is a box-cutter knife.
McBride, with her pistol drawn, repeatedly ordered Hernandez to “drop the knife” as he drew closer to her, within what appears to be roughly two cars’ length. McBride then shot at him twice. Hernandez hit the ground, and as he attempted to stand, McBride shot at him four more times. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Attorney Arnoldo Casillas says all six of McBride’s shots struck Hernandez. Casillas, who has represented multiple families of police shootings victims, was recently hired to represent the Hernandez’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, the LAPD, and Toni McBride. Hernandez’s daughter has also filled a separate lawsuit through her guardian.
According to two experts on police use of force, McBride’s decision to shoot and continue shooting after Hernandez hit the ground was in line with standard police training. “She was taught that man was still a threat when she fired her final shots,” says former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, a prominent advocate of police reform.
“It is almost by-the-book behavior on the part of the officer,” adds Maria Haberfeld, a police science professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “She’s yelling at him ‘drop the knife!’ The only other option would be what? For her to start running.”
McBride’s attorney Larry Hanna, who has built a career representing accused police officers, reiterated those views, adding that the officer “felt very bad when she had to take a life, but she did it to preserve her life and the surrounding citizens that were there.”
Another police conduct expert, retired LAPD sergeant Cheryl Dorsey, said it’s her opinion that McBride was too quick to resort to deadly force, and suggests that the officer could have taken actions to deescalate the situation. “Especially if you talk about taking a life, I always err on the side of what’s the hurry?” Dorsey said. “If he would’ve taken another step or two, maybe he would have dropped it—we’ll never know.” Dorsey added that McBride’s four shots after Hernandez hit the ground were “unnecessary” because she had already stopped the incoming threat.
Hernandez’s family agrees. “I feel like she was set to kill. There was no attempt to deescalate whatsoever,” Hernandez’s older sister Marina Vergara said while protesting outside the Newton Division station on a recent Friday. She said her soft-spoken brother, a father who worked installing flooring, could still be alive.
“I wasn’t there that day, I don’t know what happened,” Vergara said, when asked about the 911 call alleging her brother was attempting to harm himself. “The only thing I do know is that my brother was a loving person.” The family has been staging regular demonstrations calling for justice, and Vergara has pointed to an extensive collection of Instagram posts of McBride relishing her rapid-fire shooting skills.
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One video that has sparked outrage from activists was apparently filmed at Taran Tactical in December, four months before McBride shot Hernandez. It shows McBride hanging out with actor Keanu Reeves as she appears to joke about her LAPD divisions nickname, which is rooted in South Los Angeles’ high rate of homicides. “Shootin’ Newton,” Reeves quips as he learns of McBride’s assignment to the Newton Division. “Ayee he knows!” says McBride. “Shoot-in’ New-ton,” she chants with a burst of claps.
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In September of last year, McBride was training at the Simi Valley range while she was off duty. During an interview with Los Angeles about Taran Tactical and its eponymous owner, who faces a sexual harassment accusation, McBride said, “I come here every day I have off.”
“When I’m shooting I have to be in that mindset of you know what, this isn’t a metal target in front of me. This is a suspect who has a knife, potentially to a victim’s throat. This is a suspect who is holding a gun at my partner right now,” McBride said. “For me I’m always putting myself in that mindset, because if I am put in a position in real life where that opportunity—or like that situation I should say—were to come, I need to know for myself ‘Hey you know what, I’ve been training like insane. I know I can take this shot, just so that I can stop the threat.’”
As it does with all officer shootings, the LAPD is conducting a months-long internal investigation into the Hernandez case. Chief Michel Moore, and the civilian police commissioners will review the incident and make their recommendations. This process is expected to stretch well beyond the November DA election, meaning, however, Becerra rules on Lacey’s possible conflict of interest, the election may ultimately decide how this case is scrutinized. In the meantime McBride is back on patrol. On Sunday she came out of a 40-day Instagram hiatus to post a selfie to her 65,000 followers.
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