Officer Whose Bullet Killed a 14-Year-Old Girl Wanted to ‘Change’ the Police

LOS ANGELES — When he first moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago, William Dorsey Jones Jr. was like many others before him, hoping to find a career in the entertainment industry. He went so far as to start his own company, Entourage Entertainment Group.

But when those dreams didn’t pan out, Mr. Jones became a community relations specialist and patrol officer in the North Hollywood area — and he loved it. On social media, he seemed to have a sense of obligation, as a Black police officer, to confront head-on the issues of racism and policing.

He ran a nonprofit that mentored at-risk youth and helped coach a high school football team. Earlier this month, he drove a car filled with presents to hand out to children.

But on the day before Christmas Eve, Mr. Jones became the latest face of an all-too-familiar story of American policing: a rapid-fire tactical operation in a store, crowded at one point with holiday shoppers, that left two unarmed civilians dead.

After responding to calls about a man attacking customers at a North Hollywood clothing store with a heavy bike lock, it was Mr. Jones, his lawyer confirmed on Thursday, who shot and killed the man, Daniel Elena Lopez, 24. One of the bullets the 42-year-old officer fired skipped off the floor and through a wall, killing 14-year-old Valentina Orellana Peralta, who had been hiding in a dressing room with her mother.

“This is somebody who, four days ago, everybody in our country would be wanting to hire,” Tom Saggau, a spokesman for the Los Angeles police union, said of Mr. Jones, whose future with the department now depends on the outcome of at least two investigations, as well as what lawyers representing Ms. Orellana Peralta’s parents said would be a probable lawsuit.

Officer William Dorsey Jones Jr.

Officers arrived at the Burlington clothing store and rushed in with weapons drawn; a store employee had alerted a dispatcher to customers being attacked with a bike lock, but other 911 callers reported that the assailant had a gun and had fired shots, the police said.

In body camera footage released this week, Mr. Jones could be seen racing past his fellow officers with a drawn rifle, even as his colleagues called out to him to “slow down” and “hold up.”

“Let me take point with the rifle,” he said.

Only seconds after the officers encountered a woman with a bloodied head who had been scrambling to get away from Mr. Elena Lopez, Mr. Jones opened fire, the footage showed. Mr. Elena Lopez fell to the ground as an anguished wail emanated from the dressing room where Ms. Orellana Peralta and her mother were hiding.

Los Angeles Police Shooting

A stray bullet killed a teenage girl as officers fired on a suspect in a Los Angeles store on Dec 23, 2021.

  •  What Happened: The suspect was killed and a shot pierced a wall, fatally striking a 14-year-old in a dressing room.
  •  Video Footage: Surveillance footage shows a man attacking holiday shoppers before police officers opened fire.
  •  Victim Identified: The teenager, Valentina Orellana-Peralta, was in a dressing room with her mother directly behind the chaotic scene.

Mr. Jones, who was on paid administrative leave and declined to discuss the episode, has a visible “heaviness on him,” his lawyer, Leslie Wilcox, said in an interview. She said he had never before been disciplined for a police shooting, and was surprised by the level of public anger directed at him, “as if Valentina’s death was intentional, or reckless on his part, which it was neither.”

Earlier this week, Mr. Jones’s identity and badge number began to circulate on social media. At a news conference on Tuesday where Ms. Orellana Peralta’s family spoke, an attendee held a sign showing Mr. Jones’s in-uniform portrait. Above the photo it read: “WANTED.”

Valentina’s parents, Juan Pablo Orellana Larenas, second from right, and Soledad Peralta, third from right, at a news conference on Tuesday outside the Los Angeles Police Department Headquarters.Credit…Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

Mr. Jones scrubbed his digital footprint, shutting down the Twitter accounts he ran for his nonprofit, his work as a coach and his police work. In his tweets, recovered through digital archives, he sometimes described racism that he had experienced and his hopes of improving the work of the Police Department and its relations with the community.

“I’m a Black man, I’m the father of a Black son,” he wrote on Twitter on Aug. 27, saying that he had himself been a victim of “racism.”

“I’m the LAPD. I have the power & determination to affect CHANGE in the community,” he wrote.

In 2019, he spoke with a local news station about his approach to law enforcement.

“There’s no better crime reduction strategy than to engage with our youth, for them not to be scared of us, to let them know there are people out there who care,” Mr. Jones said.

In a profile of Mr. Jones on the website of the University of Louisville, where he had attended college after growing up in Kentucky, Mr. Jones said he’d had a modest upbringing. His mother, Toya J. Brazley, worked multiple jobs to help raise her three sons. His father, the elder William D. Jones, worked in insurance.

In 2006, Mr. Jones dropped out of college and moved to Los Angeles, a city eight times the size of his hometown. Initially, according to the profile, he had hoped to break into the entertainment industry. But he discovered a new calling in 2009, when he joined the Los Angeles Police Department. He liked it, as his lawyer said, because of his strong desire to help others.

Mr. Jones eventually married, had a son and, in 2015, purchased a home in Santa Clarita, a town in the foothills north of Los Angeles where middle-class families often go to find a slice of suburbia.

In 2020, Mr. Jones finished the credits he needed for his communications degree from Louisville. That same year, he and his wife started their nonprofit, Officers for Change, which distributed donations of backpacks and school supplies from fellow officers, according to the police union.

Mr. Jones also started an at-home business called Use of Force Fitness, public records show.

He found time to serve as an assistant football coach for the Valencia High School Vikings, joining the program within the past couple of years as a wide receiver coach. The team celebrated winning a major regional title in November.

Kassie Devoll, the varsity team manager, said that members of the Valencia football community were “devastated” to hear that Mr. Jones had been involved in the shooting that has been on the television news almost daily.

A memorial for Valentina outside the Burlington store in North Hollywood.Credit…Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

She said that Mr. Jones had been a mentor and a role model for the football program. “He made a direct impact on the entire team immediately.”

Ms. Devoll said that high school football can be a high-pressure environment for teen boys. Coaches can be tough and angry. But Mr. Jones, she said, was unfailingly positive and “really built them up as people.”

That was something Mason Turek, an 18-year-old senior on the team, said he experienced firsthand. He said he talked with Mr. Jones about what to pursue after high school — and told him that he had been thinking about becoming a police officer. Mr. Jones, he recalled, listened and told him about how many of his colleagues on the force had interests and careers outside of law enforcement, as well.

Still, Mr. Jones did not talk much about his job when he was at practice or games, Mr. Turek said — although he sensed it might have weighed on him at times.

“As a Black police officer, with everything going on — I have tremendous respect for him,” Mr. Turek said.

The case is set to be an early, closely watched test of two of California’s most significant police accountability reforms in recent years.

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law one of the nation’s toughest standards for the use of deadly force by police officers, requiring that officers use it only “when necessary in defense of human life.”

The law, which also requires the authorities to evaluate whether an officer took steps to de-escalate a situation or use less lethal weapons, was inspired by the death of Stephon Clark, who was shot by Sacramento police officers who mistook a cellphone he was holding for a gun.

The second change, which went into effect in July, requires that the California Department of Justice independently investigate — and decide whether to pursue criminal charges — in incidents in which officers shoot and kill unarmed people.

A still from officers’ body-worn cameras, released by the Los Angeles Police Department, showed Mr. Jones with his firearm drawn in the Burlington store.

California’s attorney general, Rob Bonta, said the investigation into the deaths of Mr. Elena Lopez and Ms. Orellana Peralta was still in its early stages. He said his office would look at the question of criminal liability for the officers involved “with the same objective eyes that we do all our other cases.”

Philip M. Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University who studies police violence, said that, given the chaos that awaited officers arriving at the Burlington store, “this is going to be a difficult case for investigators and prosecutors in making the determination about whether the officer was justified in using deadly force.”

Earlier this week, Ms. Orellana Peralta’s parents described their daughter as a bright, sweet girl who hoped to become an engineer and an American citizen. They spoke at a news conference outside the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, flanked by their lawyers, led by the high-profile civil rights attorney Ben Crump.

Mr. Crump on Thursday said it appeared clear that Ms. Orellana Peralta’s death should have been prevented.

“We think that they have training for these exact situations and dynamics,” he said. “Literally, you’re going into a public facility — how do you use the least intrusive measure to ensure that innocent people aren’t harmed?”

But Ms. Wilcox, the officer’s lawyer, said the police officers who responded had been trained in how to confront such situations, and Mr. Jones had been attempting to save lives.

“I don’t think any officer can ever imagine that such a tragic outcome would come from them following their training and procedure,” she said.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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