In wake of fatal Torrance police shooting, attorney and family seek ‘answers’
BY RYAN MCDONALD
Attorneys for the family of a woman killed by Torrance Police officers last month are gathering information about the incident, attempting to piece together how and why she died.
Michelle Lee Shirley, a 39-year-old San Diego resident, was shot and killed near Old Town Torrance in the afternoon of Oct. 31. Police say that officers fired in the midst of a chaotic situation in which Shirley, who was inside a car when police fired, was behaving erratically and crashing into law enforcement vehicles.
Boris Treyzon, an attorney representing Shirley’s family, said that he has filed a notice of claim and a demand for preservation of evidence. The former is a requirement for filing civil rights claims against government entities, and the latter obligates the receiving party to maintain materials that could be used in a future suit, including physical evidence.
Treyzon, whose has previously worked on several prominent local police shootings including that of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, said that right now the family’s focus is on finding out what happened the day of the shooting. But he said that the city and the police department had been “recalcitrant” about handing over information.
“The only thing we are doing is asking for answers,” he said. “But if they don’t give us the info we are seeking, we’ll have to file a lawsuit, and go through the courts.”
A call to the City Attorney’s office was not immediately returned.
The incident began about 2:30 p.m. on Halloween, when police received multiple calls about an “erratic and reckless driver” near the intersection of Arlington and Post avenues, according to a statement from Sgt. Paul Kranke of the Torrance Police Department. Calls said that the car was damaged and its airbags had been deployed.
Police cruisers arrived in the area and, after observing reckless driving, engaged in pursuit of the car, Kranke said. After approximately one mile of driving, officers used a “PIT Maneuver,” in which the officer’s car laterally taps a suspect’s moving vehicle, causing the suspect’s vehicle to skid sideways and halt; the car came to a stop near a Chevron station at the corner of Cabrillo Avenue and Sepulveda Boulevard.
According to Kranke, once stopped, the vehicle drove backwards into an occupied police cruiser, then forward into a second cruiser. Officers then opened fire. Shirely was transported to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead at 3:05 p.m.
Kranke could not say how many shots were fired, or whether officers fired from within their cars. Treyzon, relying eyewitnesses to the shooting and two videos of the incident that were posted on social media, said that as many as 20 shots were fired.
When reached Tuesday, Kranke was limited in the questions he could answer, but he previously told the Los Angeles Times that officers were concerned about the risk Shirley’s car posed to students leaving school for the day, including nearby Torrance High and Torrance Elementary.
As is typical with officer-involved shootings, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office sent a “roll-out” team to investigate the shooting, but the team cannot comment on the pending inquiry, said Jane Robison, assistant chief of media relations for the district attorney’s office.
Treyzon said that significant questions remain about how Shirley came to be involved in the pursuit in the first place, including whether the car was malfunctioning. Among the experts that his firm has hired is a forensic engineer to examine the remains of her car.
“What it appears to be is that Michelle’s car seems to have been involved in a serious accident immediately prior to the shooting,” Treyzon said. “But we don’t know the circumstances of the accident. We don’t know if car was mechanically sound.”
Shirley’s sole source of income at the time of the accident was working as a driver for Uber, but it is not yet clear whether she working at the time of the accident Treyzon said.
Shirley suffered from bipolar disorder, but her family believes that she was taking her medication had it under control at the time of the accident, Treyzon said.
“I personally have reviewed her communications one or two days before this happened,” Treyzon said, referring to text messages from Shirley’s phone. “Her communications are as cogent as anything you or I might say.”